JOHN UPDIKE is an excellent writer, and above all a master observer. The observing is incessant and it is a trait he shares with the characters in his books. Whoever they are, however vulgar, limited, refined or dotty, they observe acutely. There is no way to stop them or provide rest, it seems; there is no modulation or even great variation in people's perceptions. On the other hand there is such a bounty of fine observations that one might open any of Updike's books at random for an example: "The swept worn brick of the fireplace hearths like entryways into a sooty upward core of time. . ." (Couples ).
In the basement of a British university museum "a remarkably complete set of casts taken from classical statuary swarmed down corridors and gestured under high archways in a kind of petrified riot." ("Still Life," Pigeon Feathers ).
At the beginning of Rabbit Is Rich we learn that Harry Angstrom (Rabbit) now in his middle forties, has inherited his father-in-law's Toyota dealership. He now stands looking through his showroom window: "Usually on a Saturday Route 111 is buzzing with shoppers pillaging the malls hacked from the former fields of corn, rye, tomatoes, cabbage, and strawberries. Across the highway, the four concrete lanes and the median divider of aluminum battered by many forgotten accidents, stands a low building faced in dark clinker brick that in the years since Harry watched its shell being slapped together of plywood has been a succession of unsuccessful restaurants and now serves as the Chuck Wagon, specializing in barbecued take-outs."
Updike's observations merge with Harry's, but while they may produce a shudder in the reader they do not distrub Harry, newly arrived in the middle class, grateful, and flying high. He's Harry now, not Rabbit, and in Rabbit Is Rich , the third of the Rabbit books, we see him savoring the good life through his train of associations in the manner of Leopold Bloom but with a voice sometimes the dead ringer for Archie Bunker's:
"That's some little pastor you've got there," he tells his wife Janice who, putting the best face on things, has produced a clergyman to arrange the wedding of their son Nelson and his pregnant friend Pru. Harry's eyes check out the Reverend Archie Campbell, the long lashes, the tiny teeth: "Harry is fascinated by fags, what makes them tick, why they have done this to themselves."
The family is gathered nervously in Ma Springer's living room. It is a wonderfully farcical scene. "Reverend Campbell has persuaded Ma Springer to take the Barcalounger, where Harry had anticipated sitting, and to raise up its padded extension for her legs. . . . Thus laid back the old lady looks vulnerable and absurdly reduced in importance within the family circle. Janice [sees] her mother stretched out helpless. . . ."
But Rabbit Is Rich is not a farce, and Harry, the under-educated high school basketball star, c. 1951, who goes on to flunk all the tests in the University of Life, leaving a trail of death and disasters (Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux ), often thinks with an eloquence or reveals a sensibility that is in surprising contrast with his behavior. "The trees have dulled down from the liquid green of June and the undertone of insect hum has deepened to a dry constant rasp, if you listen." And later, "Autumn is starting to show its underside: out of the low clouds like a row of torn mattresses a gray rain patiently knocks all the leaves off the trees."
Rabbit Is Rich opens in the summer of '79 with gas lines and the Toyota business booming. Harry and his wife Janice, reunited once again, are living with her mother Ma Springer, an outspoken half-owner and wielder of the Toyota franchise, in her large dusky overstuffed house, three cars in the family ("Ma Springer's stately blue Chrysler pulls up [for the wedding] grinding its tires on the curb, and the three old ladies within claw at the door handles for release"). The Angstroms belong to a country club, they will fly off "to the islands" for vacation, and their son Nelson has a year of college to go at Kent. They are in the American mainstream where they did not get by hard work, sacrifice and self restraint, but (or therefore) they love every glittery bit of it.
Once in a while Harry surveys the contemporary scene and wonders: "Everywhere it seems to him now families are breaking up and the pieces coming together like survivors in a lifeboat, a great gluey net of relations knotting and unravelling and knotting again, while he and Janice keep sitting over there in Ma Springer's shadow, behind the times." It might be said that in Rabbit, Run, at the end of the '50s when he was young, he was a kind of harbinger, laid back ahead of his times. He was given to doing what "felt right" way before everybody else.
Harry's unaccustomed and pervasive feeling of well-being is not seriously disturbed when he is visited by the sins of his past. He has been an unreliable father, to say the least. Nelson is a small, whiney frightened son whom he loves and despises, and who, in this book, will have gotten a girl pregnant, married her, and bolted, running Rabbit's old course. And Harry, in a burst of tender sentiment with which he has been afflicted throughout his life, suddenly believes he spots his daughter, the child of a prostitute Ruth whom he had once loved and abandoned (Rabbit, Run ). He would like, now that the tide is with him, to make some restitution.
For about 25 years, in short stories and novels, John Updike has been recording the quiet desperation in the lives of a lot of very coarse people: even rather well-to-do and educated coarse people, as in Couples . The question is whether they are who we are, and whether in Rabbit, even as satire, we have been given a long deep look at our national character. The underlying flaw in Rabbit, often hidden by comedy, is a fragile sense of decency which does not, through the three books, and in spite of all the observing, grow stronger. It may very well be that the last essentially decent Everyman it was possible to draw in this benighted century was Joyce's Leopold Bloom, plodding through Dublin in 1904. Rabbit is not our Everyman yet. However parlous things have become we are not a people notable for a lack of decency. I think that Updike, a writer of remarkable gifts, has set his sights too low. There are some troubled Protestant clergymen running through the Rabbit books, and about one of them Rabbit "supposes this is what ministers need, to cut everybody down to the same miserable size."
Yet Rabbit Is Rich is not only very readable, but an oddly cheerful book, as if his creator, a great leveler, having for so long monitored the worst of our charmless American take-out culture, and having been half in love with all his balky, pitiable, trapped characters, suddenly relieves them from their suffering and puts them in a kind of double golden arch of heaven where they are happy playing golf (men) and tennis (women) and screwing around (both).
Observation entails the breaking of things into their component parts, and with Updike a lot of those parts are private. Harry is rarely free of vivid sexual thoughts, spelled by sexual activity, and there is quite a wallow at the end of the book. It will not impede sales. I think it's pornography. In the 1933 decision lifting the ban on Ulysses , Justice Woolsey ruled it was not pornographic, that is, not "written for the purpose of exploiting obscenity." If Rabbit Is Rich is pornography, I am too old to be a critic of its proficiency, although I am not too old to be offended, as a woman.