How sad to read of John Updike's death Tuesday at the age of 76. As
one headline put it, "Rabbit is gone." For many of us, the
much-celebrated author of a lifetime of novels, stories, essays and
reviews found his voice most powerfully and poignantly in his four
"Rabbit" novels about small-town, middle-class American life, and
Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom's often ludicrously flawed journey through it.
Updike saw Rabbit as a "purposely representative" male of his
generation, a high school basketball star turned car salesman and
lousy husband and father floundering through the untidy
realities of love, sex, marriage, adulthood and changing times.
he once said, was to "give the mundane its beautiful due." He did so in
prose that was graceful, precise, keenly observed, rich with
pitch-perfect metaphors that stopped in our tracks even those of us who
usually don't like metaphors. "Writing makes you more human," Updike
said, and so did reading him. He will be missed.
Updike wrote almost constantly from the mid-1950s to the present. He produced 28 novels, a steady stream of critical essays and reviews, and more than 800 short stories for the New Yorker magazine.
But many will remember him for the Rabbit books and their nuanced, often painful portrait of four decades of American life. He wrote “Rabbit, Run” in 1960, when he was in his mid-20s, just like Rabbit. Another book appeared each decade: “Rabbit Redux” in 1971, “Rabbit Is Rich” in 1981, “Rabbit at Rest” in 1990. The latter two earned him Pulitzer prizes; they all earned him many accolades.
This, despite the staggering imperfection of his hero. "Rabbit Runs" begins with Rabbit trapped in a marriage with an alcoholic "mutt" of a pregnant wife he despises. His basketball playing was first-rate, he tells a minister; his marriage is too second-rate to endure. "The whole business was…trying to hold this mess together she was making all the time," he says, "like I was glued in with a lot of busted toys and empty glasses and the television's going and meals late or never and no way of getting out."
He leaves her twice in the course of the book, once unthinkingly to move in with another woman with a "store-bought scent" he has just met, and once, seemingly, for good. When he runs, he leaves behind a young son, a wife devastated by the death two days earlier of their infant daughter, and a pregnant lover.
This is Updike's hero. He can be brutal: he describes the "dumb slot" of his wife Janice's mouth; he sees only "her hair thinning back from her shiny forehead," a small woman who "just yesterday, it seems to him, stopped being pretty"; her pregnancy "infuriates him with its look of stubborn lumpiness."
His language is concise, alive. The details: the "big cuticle moons on his fingernails," the "rolls of fuzz under the radiators" in the dingy apartment, the "scrape and snap of Keds on loose alley pebbles" as boys play basketball.
And the images: He "stabs a cigarette into his mouth." "Sunshine, the old clown, rims the room." A neighbor's door "shut like a hurt face." The "mute back of a Texas whore and her gritty, sugar voice." The "thump of a great heart in the dark." As a child, remembering his parents arguing, "their faces angry and flat...as if a pane of glass were put in front of him."
The first time he flees, the panicked Rabbit stops for gas and asks muddled directions of the old farmer who owns the place. The old man disapproves. "The only way to get somewhere, you know, is to figure out where you're going before you go there," he says. "I don't think so," responds Rabbit, but it is really all he knows.
From there, through the later books and the mutable decades, Rabbit tries to grow up, to find his heart, to figure out where he's going. We get to go along. Grateful thanks to Updike. It was one hell of a fine ride.