Like Rabbit, Updike is rich and closing in on 50. Both are from Pennsylvania. There the parallels end: Rabbit is one of the least autobiographical creatures of a sometimes painfully confessional writer (the breakup of Updike's marriage of 22 years, for example, informed a series of New Yorker short stories in the late 1960s). Rabbit has stayed desperately married, while Updike now lives in rural Massachusetts with his second wife. In all three books, Updike holds his novelist's mirror at an acute angle, revealing as much about Rabbit's world as about the man himself. The background shifts—Sputnik goes up, Skylab falls, hippies turn to joggers—but as Rabbit grows older, he remains heartachingly recognizable.
What follows is a portrait of this American Everyman by PEOPLE Senior Writer Roger Wolmuth.
Rabbit Angstrom loses a child by drowning, a house by fire and suffers enough marital woes to script a soap. In his infidelities, he displays all the sexual self-restraint of a buffalo herd in heat. Politically "he's a normal product," his friend (and his wife's onetime lover) Harry Stavros observes: "He's a typical good-hearted imperialist racist." Yet for all such indictments, Rabbit emerges as a sympathetic creature in the end. His good heart's dreams are limited, but he keeps fighting for them. "I want to grow up like him," his young son once says, "average and ordinary."
In the '50s, when Rabbit was a faded high school basketball star confronted by fatherhood, he tried to turn tail and flee. Who can say he did right to come back? A decade later he was settled into an adulterous adulthood as a noisy member of the silent majority, denouncing Supreme Court liberals for "letting the roof cave in" and giving his hawkish support to the war in Vietnam. "We'd turn it into another Japan if they'd let us," he rhapsodized, and "make a happy rich country full of highways and gas stations." Rabbit increasingly found himself more the creature than the creator of his era, a hapless victim. As his country faltered in Southeast Asia and battled race riots at home, his wife moved in with Harry Stavros. "I know he thinks he's missing something," she observed. "He put his life into rules he feels are melting away now."
Despite his own priapic adventures and fantasies, Rabbit has remained an orderly being in a disorderly world, a man who, when trapped into a night of lovemaking with the ailing, aging wife of a friend, neatly folds his trousers before crawling into bed. The advancing years have brought him a measure of serenity, but it is buffeted continually by inflation, gas shortages and a grown son who seems to be repeating his father's mistakes. "In middle age you are carrying the world in a sense," Rabbit notes, "and yet it seems out of control more than ever."
Control of Rabbit's own fortunes shifts as well—toward Janice, his now thick-waisted wife of 23 years, and his mother-in-law, who together own 75 percent of his Toyota dealership. Financial security may have smoothed his rough edges ("A little dough does wonders") and provided entree to the local country club, but Rabbit chafes at the idea of selling foreign-made cars whose tires "look like tricycle wheels." Youth recedes, and death draws inexorably closer, and Rabbit ultimately adapts in his own American way: He invests in South African gold and begins to jog.
Even his most decisive acts are only camouflage for his confusion, however, and Rabbit never quite escapes a sense of bewilderment. An angry son who faces a shotgun wedding and wants to quit college, the exorbitant price of a wedding cake ($185), even "roller skaters in jogging shorts with earphones on their heads"—all are a source of wonder and dismay for this mellowing middlebrow. "If a meaning of life was to show up," he reflects, "you'd think it would have by now."
Meaning or no, Rabbit forges on to a new house across town near "all those nice divorce lawyers and dermatologists." There he dreams of buying a Cuisinart for the kitchen and reading books, not just magazines, in the den, "a room where people would have trouble getting at him." In the end dreaming is his virtue, what saves him from moral bankruptcy: Perhaps he has not lived fully, but he has not stopped trying. He is more than a survivor of our times. "I haven't committed the greatest sin," he tells his troubled son. "I haven't laid down and died. It's against nature to give up; you've got to keep moving."