RABBIT AT REST By John Updike. New York: Alfred A. Knopf 512
HARRY (RABBIT) ANGSTROM slam-dunked his way into contemporary
fiction as the confused 26-year-old ex-jock taking time out from a
shaky marriage in John Updike's 1960 novel "Rabbit, Run."
Readers even then could sense that the fortunes of the
fair-haired basketball star at the center of this talented
newcomer's second novel had peaked at the high school free-throw
line - that Rabbit's life would never again radiate the same warm
glow of promise and approval.
That was confirmed when Updike revisited Angstrom, by then a
journeyman Linotype man, back with his wife but experiencing new
domestic upheaval in "Rabbit Redux" (1971).
Then the Pulitzer-winning "Rabbit Is Rich" (1981) chronicled
Harry rebounding from a dead-end career by taking charge at his late
father-in-law's Toyota dealership and settling into a comfortable,
complacent lifestyle in the inflationary '70s.
Now, with "Rabbit at Rest," billed as the last of the series,
Angstrom returns as an overweight, semiretired man of leisure who
seems older than his 55 years and whose obsession with sexual
gratification has been dampened slightly by another preoccupation -
his own mortality.
The story opens with Rabbit driving his wife, Janice, from their
Florida condo to an airport to meet their son, Nelson, and his
family. But the jet carrying the younger Angstroms conjures up a
strangely dark image for Harry - "his own death, shaped vaguely like
If the book's title weren't there to radiate its chilly
foreboding, that sentence and many like it would set the stage for
the final page, where Rabbit, in a hospital coronary unit after two
heart attacks and an angioplasty, described in deliberately
repugnant detail, tells himself, "enough. Maybe. Enough."
In between, the book is skillfully plotted to catch readers up in
one little mystery after another: Why has Nelson gotten so edgy?
Where does he disappear to? Is he involved in drug-dealing or
embezzling, as his father comes to suspect? Will a crisis or two
strengthen this aching family's fragile ties? Will involvement in a
women's self-help group transform Janice? Will she make it as a
The backdrop for the tale is Updike's atmospheric prose-portrait
of the '80s, sometimes artificially intrusive but always keenly
observed: the "anesthesia" under Reagan with "everything falling
apart, airplanes, bridges ... making money out of nothing"; the
terror among some whites of driving through a black neighborhood;
"television's tireless energy"; the dying out of local accents; an
AIDS victim's remark that his parents' marriage showed him
"something to avoid," the "Technicolor glop McDonald's puts on
everything - pure chemicals."
The symbolic links between Harry and his country become a bit
strained when Rabbit dresses up as Uncle Sam for an Independence Day
parade, but Updike is effective and subtle in tying up the loose
ends of Harry's life with seamless cameo appearances by the key
characters from the earlier books.
The invariably black humor comes at the expense of Florida as a
waiting room for the mortuary, doctors with a discomfiting bedside
manner, and a Japanese auto executive who is nonplussed by America's
relaxed attitude about business.
Underscoring Rabbit's uneasy feeling that the years are piling up
are the carefully cataloged contrasts between his fictional
Pennsylvania hometown five decades ago and today - the houses
holding the "ghost of someone he once knew who is now gone," his
recollections of things "most of the people in the world know about
only from books. …