Rabbit’s last songs

I finished reading Rabbit at Rest by John Updike and the only word for it is Wow! Here is a great writer who knows how to bring scenes and characters to life. He is not flashy or literary, just a supremely gifted writer who can describe a person or a scene with the telling detail, ge into a character’s mind and write pitch-perfect dialogue.

Here he is describing his hero, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom’s thoughts and impressions as he listens to music on the radio while driving from his old home in Brewer, Pennsylvania, to the condo in Florida where he and his wife, Janice, have retired. But Janice is not with him: he is driving alone on what will be his last journey. He is 55, listening to oldies, and see how the music reminds him of old times. It is the summer of 1990. Updike is using music to flash back to Rabbit’s younger days. Anyone who has listened to these songs will feel a rush of nostalgia. Just read the passage:

In Florida, there is no trouble finding Golden Oldies stations on the car radio. We’re all oldies down here. The music of your life, some of the announcers like to call it, and it keeps tumbling in, Patti Page begging, “Never let me goooo, I love you soooo,” and then doing so perkily that Latin American bit with “Aye yi yi” and the caballeros, and finishing “I’ve waited all my life to give you all my love, my heart belongs to you,” and then Tony Bennett or one of those other mooing Italians with “Be My Love”, speaking of all my love, and then Gogi Grant and “The Wayward Wind”, he hasn’t thought of Gogi Grant for ages, it’s a rare song that doesn’t light up some of his memory cells, while the landscape outside the car windows beyond the whoosh of the air-conditioner gets more and more honkeytonk — Flea World, Active Adult Living and car after car goes by with an orange Garfield stuck to the back window with paws that are suction caps. “Why you ramble, no one knows,” Nat “King” Cole singing “Rambling Rose”, ending so gently, “Why I want you, no one knows,” you can just see that wise slow smile, and then “Tzena, Tzena”, he hasn’t heard that for years either, the music doesn’t come ethnic any more, and “Oh My Papa”, speaking of ethnic, and Kay Starr really getting her back into “Wheel of Fortune,” all those hiccups, hard-driving, “Puleazze let it be now,” and “A-Tisket, A-Tasket”, that really goes back, he was walking to grade school with Lottie Bingham, in love with Margaret Schoelkopf, and Presley’s “Love Me Tender”, knock him all you want, before he got fat and druggy and spooked in the end he had a real voice, a beautiful voice not like foghorn Sinatra, and then Ray Charles, now there’s another real voice, “I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You”, “dreaming of yesterdaysss”, the way it tails off like that, that funny blind man’s waggle of the head, and Connie Francis, “Where The Boys Are”, a voice to freeze your scalp all right, but whose life are these songs? That was beach-party era, he was all married and separated and reconciled and working at Verity Press by then, no more parties for him.

Wow, that’s beautiful.

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