Tomorrow evening in New York, John Updike will receive the 1982 American Book Award in Fiction for his novel "Rabbit Is Rich"--the third major literary prize to be lavished on this latest account of the adventures, libidinous and otherwise, of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. That so much glory should have descended upon this novel is one of the great mysteries of the age; certainly it is proof positive, as if further proof were needed, that we do not live in a meritocracy.

For this exercise in self-indulgence and self-importance, Updike has already received the fiction awards bestowed by the National Book Critics Circle and the Pulitzer Prizes. Only the PEN/Faulkner Award, which in its brief existence has made a concentrated effort to be "different," has eluded Updike; it went to a deserving writer, David Bradley, for an interesting and intelligent but perhaps undeserving novel, "The Chaneysville Incident."

Still, three out of four isn't bad; not even the redoubtable Eddie Murray is batting .750 this spring. Had all this praise gone to one of Updike's earlier books--"Rabbit, Run," or "Bech: A Book," or even "Couples"--it would have been cause for celebration. But in point of fact Updike's earlier and vastly better books went, for whatever reason, almost entirely unnoticed by the people who make it their business to hand out honors; only a Rosenthal Award, granted to Updike in 1960 for "The Poorhouse Fair" by the National Institute of Arts and Letters, decorated his escutcheon until this sudden thunderclap of applause. Now, for a thoroughly bad novel, he has acquired a lifetime's worth of plaques, scrolls and checks.

This of course is not without precedent. It has always been something of a rarity for an American novelist to receive a major award for his best work--and it is sure to be more of a rarity now that the honorable old National Book Awards are a thing of the past. Faulkner got no Pulitzer for "Absalom! Absalom!" (it went that year, irony of ironies, to "Gone With the Wind"), but received one almost two decades later for the gassily unreadable "A Fable." Ditto for Hemingway, who was passed over for "The Sun Also Rises" but, also almost two decades later, was granted one for "The Old Man and the Sea," a work of monumental fatuousness. Institutions that hand out awards tend to be conservative and to climb aboard literary bandwagons only after their forward progress has halted.

In Updike's case it is to be hoped that is not the case; he has just this year turned 50, after all, which is far too early an age for a writer to run out of gas--even if he has written, in "Rabbit Is Rich," a novel about an America running out of gas. But there can be little question that "Rabbit Is Rich" is on almost every count an inferior piece of work. Whether it is actually Updike's worst book is open to argument, since when he is bad ("A Month of Sundays," "Marry Me," "Rabbit Redux") he is awful; what is not open to argument, at least so far as I see it, is that the novel puts on display all of Updike's worst characteristics.

Like its predecessor "Rabbit Redux," "Rabbit Is Rich" exists less for the creation of characters and social textures--at which Updike can be superbly skilled--than for the elaboration of Updike's political and social viewpoints. He is under the mistaken impression that he has interesting things to say in these departments, and he says them in a loud, insistent voice. "Rabbit Is Rich" is a novel of pushy, intrusive topicality, serving up Updike's opinions on everything from Jimmy Carter's jogging to the gas lines to Skylab; it's fiction as op-edit page, and it doesn't work as either. A typical passage:

". . . On the news, there is rioting in Levittown over gasoline, people are throwing beer bottles full of gasoline; they explode, it looks like old films of Vietnam or Budapest but it is Levittown right down the road, north of Philadelphia. A striking trucker is shown holding up a sign saying TO HELL WITH SHELL. And Three-Mile Island leaking radioactive neutrons just down the road in the other direction. The weather for tomorrow looks good, as a massive high continues to dominate from the Rocky Mountain region eastward all the way to Maine. Time for bed."

Which is where all good Updike characters go when, as it almost always does, the spirit moves them. In "Rabbit Is Rich" Updike is trying to write about the contrast between middle-aged sexual desire and middle-aged sexual performance, but he smothers a legitimate subject and some legitimate ideas about it under a great weight of gratuitous (and, in my stuffy view, tasteless) sexual detail. He seems to have the idea that it is bold and meaningful to dwell, in the most monotonous imaginable length and particularity, upon the shape, color and odor of various organs, not to mention the various tricks they can perform when introduced to each other. He believes himself, so far as I can tell, to treat these matters with wit, sympathy and candor; it does not seem to have occurred to him that he is merely vulgar.

Indeed, "Rabbit Is Rich" reeks of vulgarity. Updike fancies himself the chronicler of the common man, and he fills page after page with the most clinical evidence of that fellow's gaucherie. So far as I can determine, he also believes that he portrays the common man with sympathy and understanding. Yet what come through most vividly in "Rabbit Is Rich," as in "Rabbit Redux," are Updike's condescension and contempt. Gazing down from his aerie north of Boston, he sees nothing except tackiness:

"The chair Peggy sits in is squared-off ponderous modern with a pale fabric thick as plywood; it matches another chair and a long sofa set around that kind of table with no overhang to the top they call a Parsons table, which is put together in alternating blocks of light and dark wood with a curly knotty grain such as they make golf club heads of. The entire deep space of the room, which Webb added on when he and Cindy acquired this house in the pace-setting development of Brewer Heights, gently brims with appointments chosen all to harmonize. Its tawny wallpaper has vertical threads of texture in it like the vertical folds of the slightly darker pull drapes, and reproductions of Wyeth watercolors lit by spots on track lighting overhead echo with scratchy strokes the same tints, and the same lighting reveals little sparkles, like mica on a beach, in the overlapping arcs of the rough-plastered ceiling . . ."

If that doesn't make you feel superior, nothing will. Beneath its facade of sympathy for the poor ordinary man trying to find meaning in his life, "Rabbit Is Rich" is one extended sneer at American values as embraced by that very same ordinary man. Which gets us to one possible explanation for the awards with which it is now festooned: It expresses, in a culturally acceptable fashion, the political and social prejudices of the literati. It allows the reader, just as it allows the author, to pretend to be democratic while simultaneously turning up his nose at democratic man. The novel is a masquerade in which the reader is invited to participate.

At the same time, it offers the upper-middle-class reader the chance to go slumming, a diversion in which the intellectually as well as the financially privileged take unflagging pleasure. What could be more gratifying than to wallow around in--while carefully keeping one's distance from--a world of tacky people who live in tacky houses filled with tacky furniture, who watch tacky television shows and eat tacky food while thinking tacky thoughts? And it's all so jammed with details--brand names and song titles and headlines--that you're just as sure as sure can be that Updike has penetrated to the very heart of American darkness. It seems not to have occurred to anyone that he has penetrated to nothing more substantial than the heart of his own straw man.

But all of this is after the fact. The awards have been handed out, and "Rabbit Is Rich" has been handed over to the ages. The hunch here is that they will take one look at it and bar the door. "Rabbit Is Rich" is a creature of its moment and, more to the point, of a tiny hothouse culture within that moment. When the moment passes, as soon enough it will, "Rabbit Is Rich" will pass right along with it. A quarter-century from now, if not sooner, it will be gone and quite forgotten.