John Updike is a perfectionist — not a flamboyant writer. He can make even
the shocking seem almost natural.
In Rabbit At Rest, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom ends up in bed with his
daughter-in-law, Pru. Imagine how the scene would have played in a Greek
tragedy. But here it becomes just a family embarrassment which sends Rabbit
fleeing to his second home in Florida. He can’t face his wife, Janice, and his
son, Nelson, after Pru in a fit of conscience reveals their one-night stand. But
Rabbit expects everything will be sorted out in the end and Janice will join him
in Florida. And when he speaks to Pru on the phone, it is clear she still likes
him. He even gets her to say she does not think of him as an old man at all.
Yes, it’s that kind of a novel.
Put like that, it might seem amoral. And Rabbit doesn’t help matters when
Janice, learning of the incident, confronts him on the phone from her son’s
home. “What’s this ‘perverted’?” he retorts. “We aren’t blood-related. It was
just a normal one-night stand. She was hard up and I was at death’s door. It was
her way of playing nurse.”
And those callous words, spoken just before Rabbit flees his old hometown,
Brewer, Pennsylvania, forever, outline the plot of this novel — a meditation on
old age, death and dysfunctional families.
It won the Pulitzer prize like the preceding Rabbit Is Rich, about Rabbit in
his prime. It is rich in characters and social commentary. Updike writes
about Rabbit with such marvellous affinity that he becomes like Everyman — an
ageing Everyman. It’s the Great American Novel set in the Reagan era. Rabbit even gets to take part in a Fourth of July parade as Uncle Sam, cheered on by the people in his old hometown who remember he was a high-school basketball star.
Those glory days are long gone, however.
It happened one night
Rabbit is 55, retired, suffering from heart problems. He wants to be in
charge again of Springer Motors, the Toyota dealership inherited from his
father-in-law, but Janice won’t let him. She wants Nelson to run the business.
But he suspects the boy is taking drugs and stealing money from the business.
His suspicions prove correct. Nelson is packed off to a rehabilitation centre.
That is when the sex scene occurs. Pru comes into his arms when he tries to
comfort her after she talks of the abuse she has suffered from her husband. He
has always been attracted to her, and it just happens:
Rain whips at the screen… A brilliant close flash shocks the air everywhere
and less than a second later a heart-stopping crack and splintering of thunder
crushes the house from above. As if in overflow of this natural heedlessness,
Pru says “Shit”, jumps from the bed, slams shut the window, pulls down the
shade, tears open her bathrobe and sheds it, and, reaching down, pulls her
nightie up over her head. Her tall pale wide-hipped nakedness in the dimmed room
is lovely much as those pear trees in blossom along that block in Brewer were
lovely, all his it had seemed, a piece of Paradise blundered upon,
Love and death
Rabbit’s thoughts and emotions have grown sharper because he knows he is running out of time. There is
a touching scene when he visits Thelma, his former mistress. She is suffering
from lupus. They are drawn together by the same sexual attraction but they just
talk about old times and then he leaves, embarrassed when she says he never
loved her. They both end up in hospital, he for angioplasty, she for continuing treatment. She visits him before leaving the hospital and kisses him
in front of her husband. Later when she dies, Rabbit goes to her funeral where
her husband, his old schoolmate, nearly comes to blows with him. It turns out he
knew Rabbit had an affair with Thelma but never loved her.
Janice had an affair too with Rabbit’s friend and former colleague, Charlie
Stavros, which Rabbit knows about, but that does not end their friendship; in
fact, Rabbit teases her about Charlie.
Updike depicts human relationships beautifully — between husband and wife,
parents and children, Rabbit’s relationships with his grandchildren,
nine-year-old Judy and four-year-old Roy. He shows how people and relationships
keep changing. Janice the helpless housewife becomes a real estate agent and
grows in confidence. Nelson the junkie becomes a born-again Christian after drug
therapy. People change — and yet they don’t. Nelson shows no remorse at
all when Springer Motors loses the Toyota dealership because he had been
stealing money from the business to support his drug habit. Janice, who forces
him to go for drug rehabilitation, puts him in charge of the business again when
he comes out.
Updike also shows how America is changing. It is described from Rabbit’s perspective as he revisits old familiar scenes and sees the changes.
But Rabbit does not change at all. He plays one last basketball game with a boy
whom he meets in a park in Florida. Rabbit, the former high-school basketball
star, shows he can still shoot the hoops. But it’s too much for his dicky
He is too far gone for a by-pass heart surgery, the doctor tells a tearful
Janice when she and Nelson come rushing from Pennsylvania. Nelson is complaining
like always. “You didn’t talk to her,” he complains, referring to his mother,
when Rabbit opens his eyes, helpless in his hospital bed, breathing oxygen
through tubes. But Rabbit has made his peace with her while floating in and out
of consciousness. Updike writes:
He listens to Janice blubber and marvels at how small she grows, sitting in
that padded wheelchair they give you… She forgives him, and he thanks her, or
thinks that he thanks her.
But he is conscious when his son complains.
“Can’t you say anything? Talk to me, Dad!” the kid is yelling or trying not
to yell, his face white in the gills with the strain of it.
Rabbit can’t ignore his son.
“Well, Nelson,” he says, “all I can tell you is, it isn’t so bad.” Rabbit
thinks he should maybe say more, the kid looks wildly expectant, but enough. Maybe. Enough.