Wittily Watching Things Fall Apart

There is not much glamour in getting old. Not in America, and not in the eighties. You stop working, you go to Florida, and if you are like Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, you play golf, eat junk food, and try to hang onto your sexuality as long as you can. For the most part, you sit around and wait for your life to fall apart.

John Updike '54 makes powerful statements about modern American life in his final segment of the Angstrom family chronicles, Rabbit at Rest. As powerful, certainly, as any made by social critics like Barbara Erhenreich. But Updike's fiction lacks the tone of condemnation of his contemporaries. Rabbit does fall prey to the pitfalls of technology and culture, but he never looses his sense of awe.

Rabbit at Rest

By John Updike

Alfred A. Knopf

512 pages; $21.95

Rabbit is supposed to be the normal guy doing what every other American of his time period is doing. In Updike's previous works--Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich--Rabbit not only followed the times but willingly fit himself to them. In the fifties he was a quiet basketball hero. In the sixties he did drugs and led a varied sexual life. In the seventies he settled down to life on his father-in-law's car lot.

And in the eighties, he is doomed to fall apart. Throughout Rabbit at Rest, Updike contends that the eighties are all about disaster. In the opening pages, Updike categorizes the decade as a time of "Everything falling apart, airplanes, bridges, eight years under Reagan of nobody minding the store, making money out of nothing, running up debt, trusting in God."

Rabbit is so intrinsically a part of his time that its tagedies soon become his tragedies. As the common "older man" of the eighties buying into the Reagan dream, Rabbit is in less control than ever. Current events foreshadow his own vicissitudes in a Joycean way: the Pan Am explosion over Lockerbie, Scotland happens right before Rabbit's first heart attack; and as Hurricane Hugo kicks into South Carolina, Rabbit has his second, and final, attack. When the eighties inevitably crash, Rabbit and his family tumble with them.

Rabbit at Rest opens in late 1988 in Florida. Rabbit lives in semi-retirement, no longer a true participant in his culture. Suddenly it baffles him. The novel is divided into three sections: FL, PA and MI (Myocardial Infarction, not Mighigan). These chapters explore his confusion on three levels: first about his retirement, then about his son's drug-fed life and finally about his own body and behavior.

The Florida section describes Rabbit in his retirement. His son, daughter-in-law and their two children make a Christmas visit that forces Rabbit to question his own passivity towards life. He and his son Nelson never really got along, and the visit brings only tension and the realization that something is going wrong with his son and the family business. Although Rabbit tries his best to keep everyone occupied, his plans often go awry. In a sailing trip with his grand-daughter, Judy, Rabbit's boat accidently tips. While he is trying to save her, Rabbit has a heart attack.

Rabbit's retirement has put him out of touch with his family. He watches Judy "channel-surf," flip through the remote control without ever watching anything, as if she is on a different planet. He also cannot figure out what is wrong with his son Nelson, who is displaying the obvious symptoms of a drug addiction.

It is not until Rabbit and his wife, Janice, return home to Pennsylvania that he discovers some nasty truths. Nelson and an accountant dying of AIDS have been stealing money from the family Toyota lot to support their cocaine habits. One of his former lovers dies, and he has an affair with his daughter-in-law. Toyota eventually revokes their contract with the family business, and Rabbit learns that even his small town has to deal with drug problems, the Japanese invasion, and AIDS.

But even these unpleasantries do not harden Rabbit. "He had a hard time when we were younger giving up his dreams and his freedom but he seems at peace now," his wife reflects. Nelson, however, cannot comprehend his father's simplicity and ability to ignore real life. He tells his mother that he cannot think of life "like a big joke, like Dad does, as if the fucking world is nothing but a love letter from yours truly?"

In the face of entropy, Rabbit refuses to despair. He is never bored by the everyday details of his now-foreign culture. He remains fascinated by "The Cosby Show," "Roseanne" and by the television sportscaster (Ahmad Rashad) he calls the "black guy with froggy pop eyes."

Rabbit is even awed by the ingredients on his favorite brand of corn chips. "Corn, vegetable oil, (contains one or more of the following oils: peanut, cottonseed, corn partially hydrogenated soybean), salt." These, of course, are all "absolutely nots" for an overweight, 56-year old man who just got out of the hospital for angioplasty. "Doesn't sound so bad," Rabbit says lackadaisically before eating the whole bag.

Updike includes these details in what is obviously a well-researched summary of contemporary American culture. Rabbit is supposed to astound us with his oblivion. He sexual exploits, for example, are shocking, but he reacts passionlessly to them. The thrill of Updike's prose lies in its wit in describing the most outrageous events in the most non-commital tone.

As a Joycean novel, Rabbit at Rest is not without its epiphany. After Rabbit's second heart attack, he has life almost all figured out. "`Well Nelson,' he says, `all I can tell you is it isn't so bad.'"

That may not seem like much of a testimonial, but it is Rabbit's most expressive and passionate commentary about life. In coming to terms with his existence, he has decided that living and dying are not such terrible events. Things may fall apart in Rabbit's world, but Updike seems to say that that is the way life is. And the way that Updike presents life makes it interesting just to watch where all of the pieces land.