Picks and Pans Review: Rabbit at Rest

updated 10/29/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/29/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

by John Updike

Unlike many other memorable figures in American literature—Huck Finn, Ahab, Jake Barnes, Gatsby—Updike's Harry C. "Rabbit" Angstrom has never seemed to be anything larger than himself. And it's a mark of Updike's genius that he has, through four Rabbit novels, made the character's very ordinariness so extraordinary.

The allure of the novels—they're engrossing as well as enlightening—is all the more remarkable in view of the fact that since he first appeared in Rabbit, Run in 1960, Angstrom has never really been likable. Now, semiretired and living part-time in Florida with his wife, Janice (whom he often thinks of as "that dumb mutt"), he seems more self-centered, more sexist, more incapable of emotion than ever. "We are each of us," thinks Rabbit, "like our little blue planet, hung in black space, upheld by nothing but our mutual reassurances, our loving lies."

At 55, overweight and feeling chronic chest pains, Rabbit is preoccupied with how things end, from Mike Schmidt's baseball career to the lives of passengers in the plane blown up in the Lockerbie incident. His son, who is managing the Pennsylvania car dealership Janice inherited from her father, has drug problems. Rabbit has lost his capacity for optimism; everywhere he sees things getting worse: "Vocations drying up, nobody wants to be selfless any more, everybody wants their fun. No more nuns, no more rabbis. No more good people, waiting to have their fun in the afterlife, The thing about the afterlife, it kept this life within bounds somehow, like the Russians."

The novel is long—544 pages—but fast and full of incident. (A couple of sequences, however—a sex scene involving Rabbit and a basketball game where he challenges a teenager at a playground—will test anyone's suspension of disbelief.) It's also painful and sad.

Updike peppers the book with allusions to real products and people, such as Diane Sawyer, "with her wideapart blue eyes and melting mouth and stunned look like some beautiful blonde ox." Mostly, though, Rabbit is on his own, winding his life, past and present, tighter in on himself, frightened, confused and much more human than he—or most of us—might want to admit.

Unless Updike goes into the prequel business, we have seen the last of Rabbit. Seeking signs of control in the universe, Rabbit finds only whim and random mathematics. But the author, exercising his deified power over life and death, knew when to put his character out of his misery.

It has all been most artfully done. Rabbit's time does seem to have come—like a man he has admired. Ted Williams. Updike is capable of fine timing. And there is, in the four Rabbit books, plenty to reread and reappreciate, such as this passage in Rabbit at Rest as Angstrom settles into bed: "A blooming cottony weariness has overtaken him, enveloping him like the rain. In the narrow room its sound is more distinct than elsewhere, and complicated, a conversation involving the porch roof, the house gutter, the echoing downspout, the yielding leaves of the maples, the swish of a passing car. Closest to him, periodic spurts of dripping between the storm window and the wooden sash suggest some leakage into the walls and an eventual trouble of rot. Not his problem. Fewer and fewer things are." (Knopf, $21.95)

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