NEW YORK -- It doesn't take John Updike long to get around to sex. And why not. Sex, it seems, shares a twin bill with God as a central preoccupation of modern man, and certainly of the man to whose life story Updike has now returned four times, the dreamer and screw-up Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom.

Feathery-haired and forever nursing a grin, Updike gets around to sex and much else by way of the book on the coffee table in his hotel suite -- a new biography of Theodore Dreiser, the great-but-forgotten American writer of the early century, which Updike is reviewing. Dreiser's novels, he says, "show the big cogwheels of society turning beneath the little cogs of individual lives." Dreiser's approach to fiction, Updike says, is "more diagrammatic" than his own.

A gentle distinction from a gentle spirit. "I've not tried to analyze my society the way that Dreiser to some extent did. Although really what does his analysis amount to? It's just saying that people want things." Wunt, Updike says, with yearning. "They were all driven by wanting. We want sex, mostly, but then we seem to want good clothes so we can get the sex, and we want money so we can get the clothes to get the sex. So I don't think we're so different in the end," he and Dreiser.

Here his face lights up, a little bulb of tickled self-consciousness: "My world view!"

Sex, then. It's the main thing?

"It was for Dreiser," Updike says, skittering away from the question. "He was criticized for it, as a matter of fact, for being sex-obsessed. And his letters and his life show what we would now think would be a healthy interest in sex" -- Updike can't quite suppress a little grunt of lascivious pleasure at the very idea -- "but it was thought to be unhealthily much in his day."

Updike sits in a near crouch, back hunched, knees forward, hands together. He picks up the thought again.

"Yeah, he had a constant battle all of his life with his sexual frankness... . He would show women who had fallen, or slept out of marriage, or were mistresses, and who didn't suffer enough for it. This was very galling to the guardians of society's morals because innocent girls could read this and think -- Hey! This is the way to go!"

Updike squeals a little with the fun of this, glancing over for encouragement.

"He was an instinctive truthteller in a society that erected quite a few defenses against truth of this sort."

This is all very interesting about Dreiser. But what about Updike?

He is reminded that he has described himself recently as "sexually normal." Is Rabbit Angstrom "sexually normal"?

"Yeah, I would say he's normal."

He thinks about sex all the time.

"That's normal, isn't it?"

Waiting for an answer, he emits of low growl of mischief. Then he collects himself.

"Freud says it's normal to think about sex all the time, or to have your entire mental health flavored by sex ... Harry notices things. He's alert to women. Compared to many men, I don't think Harry's had an especially active sex life. Almost chaste, really." He considers this possibly true assertion, then steps back to look at a larger frame.

"There's an excess about sexuality, especially from the male standpoint, in that we put out a lot more than we strictly need tomake a baby or two. As trees drop many more acorns than they need to make more oaks. So there is this terrific excess. But then in a way it's excessive to be alive at all. It's sort of extravagant, isn't it?"

Harry's Story Harry Angstrom is not John Updike, exactly. Updike, who was born in 1932, got out of Shillington, Pa., a suburb of Reading, in plenty of time for the footprints of Harvard, Oxford, the New Yorker and Boston's moneyed North Shore to markhis social and intellectual ascent. But Updike, like other only children, is preoccupied by siblings; Harry Angstrom might usefully be regarded as the less talented and less fortunate slightly younger brother he might have left behind in Pennsylvania -- a self Updike escaped, in a way, a mode not taken.

In "Rabbit, Run," published in 1960, we meet 26-year-old Rabbit, so called because of his youthful athletic prowess, already a memory. He lives in Mt. Judge, a suburb of Brewer, Pa. Married to Janice Springer, and newly blessed by a baby boy, Nelson, Harry finds little meaning in either his job -- demonstrating a MagiPeel Peeler at a dime store -- or his marriage. He shoots a few hoops with some younger lads in the neighborhood, and then, flush with his own vitality, dreading his domestic prison, he skips out on Janice, who's pregnant again and boozing.

Rabbit runs, heading South in his car; he gropes about for a few days, then retreats home. Soon he flees again, this time into the arms of Ruth, a fallen woman, who falls for him, and he, ambivalently, for her. Janice's parents are crushed but stoic. At their urging, Harry is counseled, befriended, bewitched by Rev. Eccles, an Episcopal minister, who forces him into repeated confrontations with his Maker.

Eccles, who disappears after the first book, is a memorable character. "Yeah, I know," Updike says, a trifle irritably. "People said he sort of stole the book away from Harry. Maybe that's why I suppressed him." The author adds this impromptu intelligence: "There's a homosexual strand here. Throughout the books, in fact, there's something homosexual looking for a way out. And Eccles would seem to be interested in Harry as a big, tall, impressive blond man."

And, Updike says, there are other brother-figures in the books. He compares this motif with another -- Rabbit's search for a daughter. In the closing pages of "Rabbit, Run," a depressed Janice accidentally-on-purpose drowns their infant daughter in the bathtub. Harry, enraged and ashamed, leaves Ruth and comes home to Janice. "He feels he will never resist anything again." In the ensuing books, a young woman, possibly his daughter by Ruth, haunts him.

In "Rabbit Redux," published in 1971, the 1960s hack their way into the Angstroms' life, temporarily splitting their marriage. Harry, by now a linotyper who's about to get laid off, goes bohemian. He falls in with a small-time black revolutionary named Skeeter and a flower child named Jill. He smokes pot, sleeps around. Janice, meanwhile, has an affair with a salesman at Springer Motors, her father's dealership. In the end the Angstroms' house burns down; the epoch is immolated. Finally Harry and Janice get back together.

The Rabbit books -- four out of Updike's 14 novels -- have appeared roughly every 10 years, seemingly whether their author likes it or not. These novels, Updike says, are "at the mercy of the year in which I write them. Of my mood. I faintly resist them for that reason. They're not as crystalline as I like books to be. They're sort of messy, really, aren't they? This happens and that happens."

In "Rabbit Is Rich," published in 1981 and set in the late Carter administration, Harry has become the chief salesman at Springer Motors, now a booming Toyota agency. By now in his mid-forties, he's bored and, as always, bewildered. His college-age son, Nelson, comes home with a strange hippie girl and then with another friend who's carrying Nelson's child. Meanwhile Harry, still obsessed by his maybe-child, spies on the woman he believes to be his daughter by Ruth.

At the country club, he can't keep his eyes or brain off the other men's wives. He comes across snapshots of one couple in various poses of ecstasy and can't get them out of his mind. Eventually they and another couple and Janice and Harry trade partners for an evening, but as luck would have it, Harry is paired with the woman he hadn't lusted after. Still, they have a good time.

"I wouldn't say that they're designless," Updike continues, speaking of the Rabbit novels. "In fact the last book deliberately curves around the first ... "

Just so. In "Rabbit at Rest," published to general but not universal genuflection this month, Harry and Janice are still together. (Updike divorced in the 1970s, and remarried.) The Angstroms live in Florida half the year, and Nelson has taken charge of Springer Motors.

Harry has gained weight and the cantankerous opinions of the old, as well as a certain careless serenity. He and Janice live in a twilight time, where order and diet are chief concerns. "He's almost copped out of sex entirely," Updike says of the older Harry. "Janice makes a couple of overtures that he tries to avoid. It becomes an effort for him, sex," the author says with a sigh.

Nelson and his wife, Pru, and two kids arrive at the Angstrom condo. Harry has a heart attack. Then it turns out Nelson has a cocaine habit, and he's been bleeding Springer Motors into bankruptcy to feed it. Janice, an unlikely rock, takes charge of the family crisis. Later, back in Brewer, they get Nelson to straighten out. Harry, to console his daughter-in-law Pru, sleeps with her. Janice says, "Now you've done something truly unforgivable." "Really?" Harry says, with an "unintended hopeful lilt."

Harry does what comes naturally. He runs away again, drives South again, all the way back to Florida. The "deliberate curve" back to "Rabbit, Run" continues when Harry, out shooting hoops with some neighborhood kids, takes his final shot. "Up Harry goes, way up toward the torn clouds." And his creaking body seizes up. Rabbit Angstrom, unforgiven but unblushed, is soon dead, or something very like it.

Harry's Temper "My second wife," Updike confessed last year in his revealing little memoir "Self-Consciousness," once told someone that "I was the best-tempered person she had ever known."

At a prolonged glance, this seems right. The pouty, vain, brittle literary selves one comes to expect even (especially) in Updike's lessers do not inhabit Updike's rangy bones. Cordial and more, he is all patience and curiosity and gameness for what comes, however tedious or vexing.

Updike doesn't protest his wife's characterization. "If I am good-tempered, it must be the daily venting of words that makes me so, because as a child I often felt irate and frantic, and have fought all my life sensations of being smothered and confined, misunderstood and put-upon."

In "Self-Consciousness," the memoirist understands the disparate elements of his good temper, a nobility rooted in something baser. "At some point I acquired an almost unnatural willingness to make allowances for other people, a kind of ready comprehension and forgiveness that amounts to disdain, a good temper won by an inner remove."

Updike's detachment extends even to the books he writes. He speaks of "Rabbit, Run" as if it were some historical artifact, something scarcely his own.

"It is a fifties book, we can now see," he says.

And a book quite unlike the three Rabbit novels that followed. In part because it is the work of a young writer, it has an intimacy, an intensity, a cozy insularity that "Rabbit Redux," "Rabbit Is Rich" and "Rabbit at Rest" breezily lack.

But something happens after "Rabbit, Run" that intrudes. It's not just the headlines walking right into the living room during the 1960s, as Updike offers. Not just the sexual revolution. It's more. The outside world, at bay in the first book, begins to occlude the self. Inner voices are replaced by billboards, signs of the times. God is idle. Poor beleaguered Rabbit and his brood take on the baggage of each succeeding decade. Harry even marches (in "Rabbit Is Rich") in a parade, dressed up as Uncle Sam.

Updike, his back bathed in a late afternoon sun, doesn't bother arguing. He rehearses the obvious, that the books cover the last years of every decade, somehow summarizing them.

"{'Rabbit Is Rich'} offered a hook in the gas crunch crisis that happened to come along in '79, a general sense of stagflation. Everybody was rich but money wasn't very good anymore," he says. He's on interview autopilot. "And {for "Rabbit at Rest"} this last year, '89, didn't offer anything quite as useful, some sort of post-Reagan hangover, I guess, or a sense of endless debt. There's a lot of debt everywhere in this book, uncashed."

For Rabbit's assumption of such Dreiserian freight, Updike offers an astonishingly passive explanation: "Having been told in reviews that these are books about America," he says, "I felt obliged to in some way key them to events in the country at large."

Obliged? By reviewers?

"Yeah," Updike says, looking over half-slyly, half-nervously, saying again, "obliged."

How so?

"Because if that's what the books were, I should keep it up," says the good-tempered author. He adds, a little too late, "And furthermore, I wanted to. It was an interesting idea that Harry was floating along on the river of time, on the river of American history... . We all are creatures of history."

A bit later, Updike says, unprompted, "I was trying to write about the human predicament, rather than the American predicament, but naturally being American you write in an American accent, as it were. Harry's continuing bind between wanting to do what you want to do and what you ought to do. Between the inner appetitive self and the social self, the self of obligations."

Did Harry Angstrom turn out the way Updike expected?

"He turned out much as I would have thought. As I took him up again, I became perhaps fonder of him. He seemed to mellow too. He's become mellower."

Mellower? Nelson Angstrom, no peach himself, whines in "Rest": "What makes you so down on everything, Dad? You used to be a pretty laid-back hombre; now everything you say is kind of negative." If anything, the old Rabbit seems grouchier.

"Really, grouchier?" Updike's eyeballs dance in apparent surprise.

Even misanthropic.

"Heuh." He weighs this, as though he were discussing an acquaintance. "I didn't notice that."

Then, though nobody has mentioned Updike, Updike does. "Maybe I've become so misanthropic that I can't recognize misanthropy now." He makes a humming noise, the sound, perhaps, of thinking aloud: mmmmMMMMMmmmmm. "It could be. I've been accused of being misanthropic. I think of myself as a very affirmative and sweet person."

He thinks about Rabbit's progress.

"His observations are perhaps a little sharper, and he is sick in this book. Sick and tired. Maybe he's also kind of sore, come to think of it."

Sore: meaning pain or meaning anger?


He thinks to supply a reason for the anger.

"As he's aged certain social differences between himself and his wife have emerged that at first were hidden, and he's increasingly found himself a kind of a poor boy to her rich girl. And this is galling, perhaps, and disheartening. His original credential, which was his own body and athletic prowess, has become more and more tattered -- whereas her little credential, of Daddy having a car lot, has increased in value. You might even say that as a woman she's worth more in '89 than she was in '59 because ... she's imbibed in her way the feminist currents of the last decades. He probably doesnt like that either.

"Yeah, maybe he is kind of sore, come to think of it. Misanthropic."

Harry's Way

Tetralogy is a highfalutin word, but in the four "Rabbits" that seems to be what Updike has produced (along with 35 other books) before he is even 60. The publication of "Rabbit at Rest," then, is a signal occasion. Neither a publicity hound nor a neurotic recluse, the writer has been talking about Rabbit's progress for some months now and consenting to more than the usual number of interviews.

Of his publisher's special hopes for this crowning volume, Updike says, "They smell blood on this one and they want me to give the spinning wheel another kick." Knopf has printed more copies of "Rabbit at Rest" -- 175,000 to date -- than any previous Updike novel has ever sold in hardcover. (The 1968 book "Couples," at 160,000 copies, comes closest; the first three Rabbit novels sold 35,000, 60,000, and 90,000 copies respectively. The paperback figures are in the millions.)

Satire being the sincerest form of esteem, Spy magazine has greeted the new Updike book with a satirical chart titled "Rabbit by the Numbers." It's a kind of do-it-yourself Angstrom kit for readers to save and break out again a decade from now when they're hungry for another Rabbit novel -- "Rabbit, Really!" Spy suggests.

Updike claims not yet to have seen this foolishness. He's offered the chance.

"Should I? Should I?" He feigns terror. "Do I have the fortitude?" It's a vaguely awkward moment. The photographer is present, giving directions. He needs something to do with his hands and face. He studies the document, which calls Harry Angstrom "John Updike's Everyman and the literary descendant of Leopold 'Chicken' Bloom and Ralph 'Yak' Kramden."

"Sophomoric," Updike declares. You can almost hear the self-deprecator's comeback, as he adds, "the kind of thing I used to write for the Harvard Lampoon."

More film is exposed. He reads on: passages from each of the Rabbit books that describe in great detail Janice Angstrom's "forehead or cranium."

"These people have really done their homework, haven't they? Yes they have. This is a very good guide for anyone who is trying to write about this series."

Each crazy thing brings on another of those nasal giggles; like sneezes, they can't be suppressed. How much Harry earns at 10-year-intervals. Janice's evolving taste in alcoholic beverages. Volume-by-volume citations of period TV series. "Embarrassing" sex acts -- a breakdown by Rabbit book.

"And they count how many times I mention 'run' in each book. Can you believe it?" He is clearly amused, but animated in other ways too. To make the time pass, he tries on each pose of jocularity. "I wish I'd had this at the beginning ... Now I see how easy it is," Updike muses, as the shutter clicks on.

"They have counted all those things. I'm impressed," he says.

More pictures. More merriment.

"It fills me with such disgust about the Rabbit books that I promise you I'll never write another now that I see what a formulaic dismal unhelpful series it is."

Harry's God

The young Harry Angstrom of "Rabbit, Run," a sinner new to the game, is also a bit of a holy man. "I'm a mystic," he tells his girlfriend Ruth, "I give people faith."

Not everyone -- not, at the time, his wife. As his wise friend Rev. Eccles tells him sharply one day, "It's the strange thing about you mystics, how often your little ecstasies wear a skirt."

But never mind. Rabbit, at 26, talks like the tormented believer that he is. "There is this quality, in things, of the right way seeming wrong at first. To test our faith." On a day during which he feels "bothered by God," Harry climbs, Ruth in tow, to the top of a mountain overlooking the city of Brewer. "It seems plain, standing here," he decides, "that if there is this floor there is a ceiling, that the true space in which we live is upward space."

Thirty-some years later, Updike is wistful about the vagaries of his hero's faith -- the adjustment of the ceiling as life goes on.

"Harry is a kind of religious fellow who clings to the notion that his inner promptings are somehow worthwhile," his creator says. "That we're not just mechanisms planted here to create more mechanisms. That somehow our feelings, especially our feelings of joy, have value.

"This is an indefensible position, rationally," Updike goes on. "But Harry never quite gets it. He never quite believes that that's all there is. He believes there must be more, that God in some way exists -- is I guess what it really comes down to."

What does Harry's God look like?

Updike is willing to consider this question. "It makes me uncomfortable," he replies after a time. "I obviously can't talk very well about this. I've taken Harry's religious attitudes as I've found them, in a strange way. They don't strictly correspond to mine. He's much less structured, much less interested in theology -- in fact he has no interest in theology that I can see... . But there is an instinctive theism. You might even say that he's kind of an Emersonian: ... the self is enough to prove that everything is all right." This thought tickles Updike momentarily.

But the searcher, the quester in young Harry has long since retired, given up the ghost to a mature and mortal man coasting toward death. God isn't the urgent bothersome needle He once was. "It's true that this book finds him apparently pretty indifferent to the vital license-giving God of 'Rabbit, Run,' " Updike says, "but maybe God has several faces. God as the bestower of rest is present in this book."

Yet Updike acknowledges the erosion of his hero's belief, even a little reluctantly, and seeks to explain it. "Faith is perhaps a function of vitality. And vitality ebbs, and faith with it," he suggests.

"God, like sex, is most intensely present early on. Can that be?" He appears to be uncertain.