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Updike's Rabbit, Back in Brewer

Rabbit Redux, by John Updike Alfred A. Knopf, 407 pp., $7.95

By Michael Sragow

"abbit" Angstrom once yearned for freedom. One night in '59, he went out for cigarettes and never returned. He fled: from a drunken, child-like wife, and a dank, frame-house row-home apartment. From wealthy in-laws, and cloyingly supportive parents. From the town of Mt. Judge, Pa., once greener, once marked by the men that lived in it; from the city of Brewer, its asphalt and industries. He left a baby son, Nelson, and the promise of a second, unborn, child.

He got in his car, and drove South "... down, down the map into orange groves and smoking rivers and barefoot women." He dreamed of his old basketball days, and his old laying-Janice-in-the-backroom days, and of making it with a DuPont in Delaware. Then he stopped at a gas station, and found he was travelling in circles. The stupid farmer at the gas-pump said: "The only way to get somewhere, you know, is to figure out where you're going before you go there."

Rabbit knew the guy was half-crocked: "Everybody who tells you how to act has whiskey on their breath." But a feeling of unease, of inevitable doom, sank into his gut, and he returned to Brewer. Finally disappointed by a mistress too scared to let Rabbit get through to her, and slightly stirred by the selfless (if misguided) urgings of an Episcopalian minister, he returned to his wife Janice as well.

Throughout Rabbit Run, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom struggled; he still ran at novel's end, in a final gesture of revolt. He was naive and inarticulate, and not wholly conscious of the implications his acts held for others. But his faith in that single emancipating impulse was beyond his neighbors' compromises: Rabbit became their conscience and scapegoat. To his parents, he was "the worst kind of Brewer bum"; to his in-laws, the destroyer of his wife Janice; to his mistress, something too inspiring.

Updike is an American moralist, analyzing the limits of living in terms of the social thwarting of human potential and dreams. Rabbit was a religious hero in '59; his faith was ruthlessly transcendent. Rabbit's talks with Reverend Eccles drew out his "theology." Eccles talked of Hell "as separation from God". Replied Rabbit: "Well, then, we're all more or less in it."

But Rabbit couldn't ponder the problem, only rebound emotionally off surrounding situations. He expressed himself through actions, which, in the clogged Brewer-Mt. Judge landscape, made him incomprehensible to more interiorized residents. His mistress never quite understood why Rabbit asked for a blow-job, or Mrs. Eccles why he slapped her on the rump. But Rabbit had his reasons, deep-rooted ones, true to his sympathetic nature. And because he was tired of lives too needlessly convoluted for direct personal response, because if we are in hell, we must build something to protect ourselves, and to build with the second-rate is to fall into limbo--for these reasons, Rabbit ran.

In Rabbit Redux (redux: Latin, "led back") we find that the course of a decade hasn't brought him any closer to what he wanted. It has, in fact, taken him down a peg. Angstrom is back in Brewer, working with his father as a linotyper (a fading breed...) in a print shop. There are, of course, enormous differences, in Rabbit and family, in Brewer, and in Updike's own attitudes and approaches.

Rabbit himself has transferred his faith from freedom to middle-class American virtues. His is still with Janice and Nelson. Though he hasn't had sexual relations with his wife since Run, and though he finds his long-haired kid (and his flower-child tendencies) frightening, Rabbit is doing what was expected of him; and doing it with devotion which surpasses understanding because it is so unexamined.

But Rabbit is always out of step with (perhaps, ahead of) his times. The culture permeating society in 1969 no longer shares his new assumptions. Even in Rabbit's running days, America was not a land where the individual counted all that much, but there was still Jiminy Cricket to sing that "you couldn't ask a waterfall to be a tree." In Redux, when Rabbit and Nelson watch television, the Lone Ranger is mocked, and even Tonto involved in general degradation. To Rabbit, "America is beyond power, it acts as in a dream as a face of God. Wherever America is, there is freedom and wherever American is not, madness rules..." His belief is pure, and purely unreal; linked to a Calvinist temperament, it provokes violent reaction against newly critical opinion: Harry is irritated that people think this country "just grew here instead of people laying down their lives to build it."

Rabbit, Run was a quest; its sequel is a psychic Odyssey. Rabbit ran from a variety of constricting consequences only to be thrust into quiet Eisenhower-era oblivion. This older Harry (rarely "Rabbit" now except in conscience) plays the same role in all the conflicts he's involved in. He changes internally more than the earlier Rabbit ever did; in Redux, he learns to live his life with a higher degree of consciousness.

Rabbit has neglected to look to his own house as it changed with time. He returned to Janice to do his duty; now, "everyone's the way he used to be." This is only half-true, and Rabbit eventually comes to realize it. The freedom Janice and her new lover want they view as a God-given right. In the broadest view, Rabbit is still alone in his innocence, in his determined search for some final causes; he must learn to embody his feelings in terms appropriate to his new world.

Rabbit, traumatized by Janice's betrayal, first abandons his stoic straitjacket. He is re-awakened to what Updike calls "new areas of sexual and psychic penetration" by a rich teen-aged "hippie" named Jill. He is then confronted directly with the problems which have caused his confusion--Vietnam, racial strife, local revolutionary struggle--when he takes in a young black war veteran. Skeeter attempts to give a metaphysical basis to explain social conditions--something Rabbit instinctively needs:

There are two theories of how the universe was done....there was a Big Bang, just like in the Bible, and we're still riding that, it all came out of nothing all at once, like the Good Book say, right? ... Now the other, which I prefer, says it only seems that way. Fact is, it says, there is a steady state, and, though it is true everything is expanding outwards, it does not thin out to next-to-nothingness on account of the reason that through strange holes in this nothingness new somethingness comes pouring in from exactly nowhere.

But Skeeter's problems are not Rabbit's: Angstrom can accept neither his nihilistic analysis of American history, nor the irrational fire of his revolutionary solutions. Skeeter tells him what was lurking in the plumbing of America; Angstrom does not believe the sewer's backed up all that far. "Confusion is just a local view of things working out in general," says Rabbit. Which does not imply that Rabbit returns to a passive acceptance of what's laid out for him. He comes to grips with his life. He accepts guilt for his own domestic mess, and (with his father) recognizes Nixon's guilt for his. And Rabbit makes a life-deciding move: fired when offset replaces linotype at his plant, Rabbit gives up linotyping altogether. He talks of moving to a farm with Janice and Nelson (a perfect setting for a vulnerable animal).

In content, Rabbit Redux resembles Updike's much-lambasted Couples, which told of Piet Hanema, a wealthier, more intelligent Angstrom type striving to build foundations against death in the sexually gymnastic but spiritually hollow "Tarbox, Mass." That's where politics made a hasty entrance into Updike's America; Tarbox couples coupled during Asian wars and American assassinations, forced to form their own secular groups partly by their total disengagement from those encroaching headlines. The major critical complaint was lodged against the novel's bulk; its themes and symbolic framework, were not filled out with sufficient flesh-and-blood drama.

There is plenty of that, and some melodrama, in Rabbit Redux, and the novel is every bit as complex as Updike's previous one. The politics are accurate, and interesting; Rabbit is a wavering hawk, his cagier father a sort-of populist, his used-carlot-owning in-laws, fashionably lib-rad. The changing landscape is vigorously perceived: the social differentiations between tract housing developments and more wooded lots, plastic hamburger stands moving ever-closer towards the heart of the old city. Dominant metaphors resonate with historical substance. As Rabbit journeys, the theater marquee goes from 2001 to TRUE GRIT to 2001 (returned by popular demand), while Apollo II goes from lunar orbit to landing, to the dark side of the moon and back again.

Perhaps because Updike so meticulously spelled out his philosophy in Couples, he here leaves it in only where (as with the Skeeter-Rabbit talks) it matters. Redux makes concrete a cyclical vision of human interaction. Rabbit goes through a free fall which Janice endured, on her own scale, in Run; and as Janice then caused the death of a child, Rabbit's sodden neglect causes Jill's violent end in a blazing house. Updike's characters change and grow with each other, spinning globes in solar systems of an inexplicable universe. Is there no justice to these systems? No, not in any Old Testament sense--the questions here are too variable. We're all in a hell made dynamic by our own inventions. Let's try to make it more liveable.

What makes Redux exciting is, ultimately, the language. Updike again uses the terse, present tense sentences of Run, the texture of the novel deriving from Rabbit's rapid observations, what he smells, and touches. As the world crowds Rabbit, Updike's precision grows accordingly, down to the news stories Harry sets in type. And, as sexual needs become franker (it is in sex that Rabbit's peers are as sentient as he), Updike's use of stream-of-consciousness is ecstatically successful, Janice's already-famous Molly Bloom jag vitally compresses an expository confession until it is touching in its revelation of character, and sexually provocative.

Rabbit Redux is a major achievement. Updike's sense of irony and his empathic power have enabled him to portray a broader range of American individuals than any other novelist--without condescension, and with some hope. The novel should be read--not only by an "Updike audience", but by the Rabbits and the Skeeters whose rages he expresses in passionate prose.

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