Rabbit at Rest by John Updike
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,