Updike by Adam Begley (Harper Collins)
Beribboned as a chief of staff, prolific as a Mongol prince—beloved, ripened, rich, at rest—John Updike died in hospice near his home in coastal Massachusetts on January 27, 2009. Some nineteen years before, near the end of the Rabbit tetralogy, the work on which his reputation will unquestionably rest, he had his hero muse about an author, recently deceased, who had “joined Roy Orbison and Bart Giamatti in that beyond where some celebrities like Elvis and Marilyn expand like balloons and become gods but where most shrivel and shrink into yellowing obituaries.”
Elvis and Marilyn or Orbison and Giamatti? Hemingway or Howells? By the time of his death, Updike might have suspected how doubtful his case had become. He had been the boy wonder of American letters in the 1950s and 1960s. Hired by The New Yorker practically straight out of college, as Adam Begley tells us in his new biography, he became a mainstay of its fiction section (and the best writer “The Talk of the Town” had ever seen) more or less immediately. From 1959 to 1971, he published The Poorhouse Fair, which won the Rosenthal Award; Rabbit, Run; The Centaur, which won the National Book Award; Of the Farm, a jewel of a novella; Couples, one of the signature novels of the late 1960s; Bech: A Book; and Rabbit Redux, which Begley justly calls his greatest work. He also wrote the lion’s share of the short fiction that, collected decades later in The Early Stories, prompted Lorrie Moore to remark that “it is quite possible that by dint of both quality and quantity,” Updike “is American literature’s greatest short-story writer.” In 1961, he published the first of some 375 book reviews for The New Yorker. In 1964, at the age of thirty-two, he was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters, our American Pantheon.
Yet already by the previous year, dissenters had begun to be heard. Updike’s mind was shallow (he had “very little to say”), his focus was narrow (all he wrote about was sex), his prose opulent, yes, but overripe and facile. He was not just prolific, he was too prolific, unwilling to run the risk of writer’s block by challenging himself. He may have been among the decade’s leading chroniclers, but the shifts in consciousness that we associate with the 1960s, especially the emergence of feminism, did not prove kind. (It didn’t help that he supported the Vietnam war, however reluctantly.) He was conventional, complacent, nostalgic; narcissistic, oversexed, misogynistic. As the country moved on—and with the large exceptions of Rabbit Is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990), his work declined in quality if not in volume—he became a figure from another time, another America, out of touch and out of date, his epitaphs already written. To Harold Bloom’s oft-quoted remark that Updike was “a minor novelist with a major style,” David Foster Wallace added another, cited anonymously from a female friend: “a penis with a thesaurus.”
Only time will tell if Begley’s book becomes a final send-off or the start of its subject’s rehabilitation. Neither, I suspect. Updike’s prospects, in the near term, do not look any brighter than they did around the time that Wallace dropped his bomb in 1997 (or than those of Mailer and Roth, the other “phallocrats” he named in his indictment). Our cultural politics are still pretty much where they were at the time: shackled to our identity politics.
But Updike strikes me as the kind of writer who is going to be rediscovered, and who is going to keep being rediscovered. The time will come—in thirty or fifty or a hundred years—when the values of our own effulgent age will seem as odious as those of the 1950s (or for that matter, of the 1850s) do to us today. No one then will care how Updike did or didn’t vote. They will turn to him— readers will, and writers, I think, especially will—for what is permanently valid in his work: the virtuosity of his technique, his ability to craft a sentence, a scene, a story, to calibrate tones and modulate effects; the penetration of his eye, his gift for seeing things and seeing into minds; his brave, honest, unembarrassed frankness; and the sheer aesthetic pleasure of his prose.
Begley’s biography is sympathetic and skillfully written, with a lot of smart things to say about the life and the books. I could have used a deeper dig, however. The chapter on the author’s childhood is mainly confined to his immediate family, with little sense of Updike’s forebears or of the larger environment of Berks County, Pennsylvania, in which he was raised, a milieu as formative for him as Mississippi was for Faulkner. The balance of the book is similarly narrow, just the author and the figures around him without a lot of literary or historical context. Perhaps inevitably, and notwithstanding the fact that Updike was an intensely autobiographical writer, Begley too easily succumbs to the biographical fallacy, explaining the life through the art and the art through the life, the one becoming transcriptive, the other transparent. Updike wore his famous geniality like a suit of Teflon armor, and for all of Begley’s research his subject often seems to disappear behind his impish smile. I’m not a fan of the typical eight-hundred-page life (and I’m mindful that Updike himself once remarked that biographies are novels with an index), but I could have done with more.
Still, we get the facts, and many of the patterns that the facts are seen to make. John Updike was born, a cherished only child, in 1932 in Shillington, near Reading, a small town on the outskirts of a small city. His youth’s—and, as it would prove, his life’s—defining loss was not a death, a disease, or a divorce; it was a departure. John was thirteen when his mother moved the family back to the farm that her father had sold when she herself was eighteen. Her return was his displacement. Just eleven miles from Shillington, Plowville (a name too obvious for fiction) was a different world. For John, the country represented not serenity or continuity, but isolation, loneliness, and boredom. Shillington had been a paradise—its neighborhoods, its movie house, its intimacy and “immutability.” Now it was a paradise lost.
Among his mother’s motives, in making the move, was to get her son away, as high school approached, from the common run of Shillington townies. She was a writer herself—a good enough one to eventually publish ten New Yorker stories of her own, albeit with her son’s intercession. But John had started writing at the age of eight: like Rabbit, the basketball phenom, he was a natural. He was the one who was going to fulfill her ambitions, and to do so he needed to leave—not just Shillington, eventually, but Berks County altogether. “There we all are, and there we’ll all be forever,” says the mother to the son in “Flight,” as they survey the town spread out beneath their feet. “Except you, Allen. You’re going to fly.” Linda Hoyer Updike was a classic great-man’s mother out of Freud, worshiping her son into a state of unshakable self-belief. Anyone who wonders where he got his preternatural self- confidence need look no further. She loved him, she shaped him, and then she aimed him at the sky and shot him into orbit.
Eden and exile, escape and return, flight and fall, running and remembering: these motifs are everywhere in Updike’s work. The remarkable thing about Rabbit, as his story starts, is that he is all of twenty-six and already awash in nostalgia. His opening act—before he bolts, before he hobbles back—is one of reenactment. Playing with some boys around a hoop, he mentally replays his glory as a high school star. Thirty years and 1,500 pages later, at the end of his rope and his tale, he reenacts his reenactment. In between—and more and more, as the cycle progresses and the pans of his life tip from future to past—he remembers. But what he remembers most pungently is not the gym, it’s the backseat: the flash of a bra, the musk of surrender. Updike’s nostalgia is not for a specific historical moment; it is the ubiquitous modern ache for time past, and in particular, for youth. We applaud it when it comes to us in cultured Continental form (when the odor is of madeleines and tea), but less so, for some reason, here.
As in Updike’s fiction, so in his career. The most conspicuous fact as you survey his list of works (after its sheer length, of course) is its recursiveness. Two Eastwicks (Witches and Widows), three novels based on The Scarlet Letter (A Month of Sundays, Roger’s Version, and S.), four Rabbits (plus a coda, “Rabbit Remembered”), eighteen Maples stories (a running chronicle, in fictional form, of his first marriage), a score of Bechs. Couples was followed by a series of “Tarbox” stories set in the novel’s fictional locale. Twenty-five years after Of the Farm, the story was extended (one would never say, with him, completed) with “A Sandstone Farmhouse.” There was always, for Updike, another return.
But an early story, “The Happiest I’ve Been,” begins to show us the complexity of that maneuver. A sophomore from Olinger, the fictionalized Shillington (pronounced, Begley tells us, with a hard g, “Oh, linger”), is home from college on his winter break. Instead of heading for Chicago after Christmas, as he’d planned, he ends up at a New Year’s party. The whole old crowd is there: jocks, nerds, crushes, friends. “The party was the party I had been going to all my life.” But the title moment comes the following morning, when he’s finally on his way out of town, reenacting the escape he had already made the year before. The world is all before him, and he feels himself becoming an adult. We return, in Updike, to better depart, depart to better return—like all adults in coming home.
Updike’s own escape had been to Harvard. There he got top grades, took writing classes, drafted a story that was later published in The New Yorker (it’s about a former high school basketball star who is itching to run out on his marriage), and met and wed a Unitarian minister’s daughter—educated, cultured, and artistic—named Mary Entwistle Pennington. But the center of his life in college was The Harvard Lampoon, which he more or less took over. The Lampoon, for which he drew as well as wrote, was the perfect stepping-stone, artistically and professionally, to The New Yorker, the magazine of which he had been dreaming since the age of twelve. His idols and models, as an adolescent, were the canonical New Yorker contributors: James Thurber, E. B. White, John Cheever, and a little later, J. D. Salinger. He had another model, too: Walt Disney, the “universal artist” with mass appeal. Updike wanted to give pleasure as a writer, wanted to entertain—wanted to be popular, transparent, accessible, American.
But something else occurred at Harvard. He encountered European modernism. He discovered there was more to aim at than urbane sophistication. Proust and Henry Green, the English novelist, “quite bowled me over,” he later wrote, “showing me what words could do, in bringing reality up tight against the skin of the paper.” Joyce, whose picture Updike later kept above his desk along with Proust’s, became another influence and inspiration. (In their inner monologues, especially in the tetralogy’s later installments, Rabbit and Janice Angstrom often sound like no one so much as Leopold and Molly Bloom, another sensuous, contentious, adulterous couple.) Yet while those exposures elevated his ambition, they didn’t knock him off his center. They didn’t do what they have done to so many other young provincials: they didn’t make him feel flimsy or inferior or resentful, didn’t make him want to be somebody he was not.
Updike’s response to Proust and Green and Joyce was characteristic of the major cultural encounters of his young adulthood: with Harvard, with modernism, after graduation with New York. He kept himself apart at school, disdainful of the snobs who hung around the Lampoon and indifferent to the college social scene. He was going to take what he could get from the place, but he wasn’t going to let it turn him into a Harvard man. His attitude about New York, and ultimately, about The New Yorker, was pretty much the same. He loved the magazine, loved his editors, but two years on the staff—two years expending his talent on “Talk” pieces, parodies, light verse, and other ephemera—was enough. Two years in New York was more than enough, especially once he had gotten a taste of the city’s incestuous, socially competitive literary world. In 1957, less than three years after graduating college, he moved his family to the small coastal town of Ipswich, Massachusetts, a New England edition of Shillington.
He knew who he was, and he knew who he wanted to be: an unembarrassed, unreconstructed middle-American. He shied away from nothing that he saw or learned in modern art or thought—not then, not ever—but the self-assurance that he carried with him out of Berks County made him proof against adopting the attitudes they entail. Atheism, alienation, and angst; elitism and cosmopolitanism; aesthetic austerity and experimentalism; political and spiritual extremism: these were not for him. Updike’s life and work are testaments to the idea that mid-American values, beliefs, and sensibilities are adequate to address and interpret modern experience. The conviction made him, and to many it has made him unforgivable.
Ipswich was the place where Updike did his finest work, and also where he found, reveled in, and immortalized the “adulterous society” of young professionals at play in the prosperity of Ike and JFK, the “post-pill paradise” of Tarbox and Couples. The novel’s magic circle of ten marriages (and about that many liaisons) is modeled, Begley tells us, on the even dozen that composed the Updikes’ little world. Ten of the twelve were adulterous, and all of the former ended in divorce.
John and Mary were equal participants; neither one could later say who started cheating first. Whether this is cause for censure—of them, or more to the point, of him—is an equally tricky conundrum. I’ve heard that even now, in our most virtuous age, the practice of adultery is not unknown. Only we have less excuse. In Couples, one of the characters floats the idea that in the future televisual surveillance will make adultery impossible. “My God,” another remarks. “They’ll undermine the institution of marriage.” That may be funny, but it’s not a joke. Updike and his friends were too old not to marry young. (He had been 21, and had four children by the time he was 29.) The sexual adventurism that people take for granted now, as part of an extended singlehood, they could only experience after marriage. Divorce was also much more complicated to obtain, before the rise of no-fault legislation. Adultery, as almost everybody in the novel understands, was a necessary safety valve.
Updike—and Mailer, and Roth, and the other men (and women) of their generation—were situated at a complicated juncture in the history of sexuality. They came of age before the revolution, but not so long before that they couldn’t try to join it. Sexual freedom descended on them not as a birthright, but as a miracle. Of course they went a little wild. When the Pill came out in 1960, the oldest member of the baby boom was fourteen. Updike was 28. If he spent a lot of time thinking about sex, it’s not a big surprise.Updike, like his contemporaries, was also too early for feminism. That may not be conducive to the most progressive attitudes (though people still aren’t capable of telling character from author: it is Rabbit who says “cunts,” not Updike), but it also means that Updike stood between the old and new Victorianisms. The most shocking thing about the way he handles sex, from the standpoint of 2014—when nothing is censored but everything is censured, from one direction or another—is that he doesn’t moralize it. In “When Everyone Was Pregnant,” the narrator reminisces about a scene that could have come from Couples:
The time Sarah was with me. Nancy off in the hospital with varicose veins. Diagnosis: no more babies. Our last baby cried. Sarah rose and mothered it. Child went silent, laughed, knew something was funny, maybe thought Sarah was Nancy making a face, pretending something. Same smell, woman smell. Panes of moonlight on Sarah’s naked back, bent over crib. Baby gurgled and laughed. “Crazy kid you have here,” she said, flipping her hair back in coming back to me.
The moment is creatural, anthropological, transcending right and wrong. It’s also about a lot more than just adultery.
Anyone who claims that Updike writes about nothing but sex is engaging in an act of willful blindness. Sex, for him, is part of something vastly larger, both as fact and theme: nature, that overwhelming nature that he found in Plowville. Surrounding the suburban sociology that he captures so indelibly—the ranches, the cocktails, the sitcoms, the swinging—are the movements of the seasons and the stars. “When did he get her pregnant?” Rabbit asks about his son and his girlfriend. “Oh,” says his wife, “when these things happen, in the spring.”
But spring, like flight, implies a fall. “I hate nature,” says the father in The Centaur. “It reminds me of death.” This is Rabbit in his summer garden: “The lettuce is tall and seedy, the beans are by, a carrot he pulls up is stubby as a fat man’s prick, all its push gone upwards into greens.” Life and death are not just intertwined; they are the same. “Spring’s terror washed over him,” we read of Piet, the protagonist of Couples. “He felt the slow thronging of growth as a tangled hurrying toward death.” Life-force and death-drag, growth and decay, both irresistible, both indifferent to the self. Nature isn’t sweet, in Updike; it is muggy, wormy, weedy, greedy, pushy. It is omnipresent; it is merciless.
That’s why sex is rarely an affair, for him, of perfect, nubile flesh. He is a connoisseur of aging bodies (of both sexes), reading time in sags and blotches and wrinkles and stretch marks, which he records, like everything else, without disgust and without judgment. This is Rabbit looking at his sometime lover, Thelma:
Her body in the lamplight is a pale patchwork of faint tan and peeling pink and the natural yellowy tint of her skin. Her belly puckers into flat folds like stacked newspapers and the back of her hand as it holds the base of his prick with two fingers shows a dim lightning of blue veins.
Which doesn’t stop the two of them from having good sex—real, human, middle-aged sex, which even HBO has not caught up with.
Rabbit isn’t just nostalgic when his story starts. At twenty-six he is already getting old, and we watch him get older and older—slower, thicker, sicker—installment by installment. He is an athlete, a body, and bodies peak young. The tragedy is that he knows it, knows it every faltering step of the way. “The kids keep coming,” he thinks at the end of the very first paragraph of Rabbit, Run, “they keep crowding you up.” The slow thronging of growth: no sooner have you flowered than your time is done. That doesn’t mean that Updike’s people screw to stave off death. They screw because they want to screw. They screw because it feels good. But all around them in the story, and often enough within them, dwells the consciousness that sex is nature’s way of utilizing them as temporary instruments of larger ends, vessels to be used and cast aside.
Updike’s religion, which is typically (and lazily) derided as small-town Protestantism, begins from that perception. The classic text is “Pigeon Feathers,” his most acclaimed short story, written, as it happens, immediately after Rabbit, Run. (If “A & P” is the Updike story you read in high school, “Pigeon Feathers” is the one you should have read.) Plowville, here, is Firetown, to which the young protagonist is banished, just as Updike was, at age thirteen. Begley informs us that Updike’s obsession with death began at ten or eleven, but David’s, in the story, originates now, in sequel to the move, and it stems from a crisis of faith. If there is no God, then there is no afterlife, “the promise ... that ... made every good and real thing ... possible.”
One day David’s mother asks him to kill the pigeons that are roosting in the barn. David is an excellent shot. Calmly, carefully, he picks the birds off one by one. He looks up in the rafters, seeing “little dabs of gray,” then waiting, aiming, killing. “He had the sensation of a creator; these little smudges and flickers that he was clever to see and even cleverer to hit in the dim recesses of the rafters—out of each of them he was making a full bird. A tiny peek, probe, dab of life, when he hit it blossomed into a dead enemy, falling with good, final weight.”
It is when he’s burying these creatures that he has his epiphany. He has never seen a bird up close before. “Across the surface of the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics of the feathers played idle designs of color, no two alike, designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture, with a joy that hung level in the air above and behind him.” Now he knows “that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.”
The story is a credo at once theological and artistic. David finds God by emulating him. He creates. That he creates by killing— the story’s brazen moral scandal—only draws him nearer to his model, for He does the same, as Piet in Couples understands. The more important point lies in the way in which he kills: carefully, cleverly, with a patience both of seeing and of skill. It takes no wit to recognize a third, implied creator, intermediate between the other two. The boy creates the birds; the artist creates the boy; the deity creates them all. “Controlled rapture” is a precise description of the state in which the patterns of Updike’s own work, here and elsewhere, have been so evidently crafted. The joy hangs level everywhere around us.
This is the argument from design, and it is also an argument for design. Updike believed in art as imitation, a tracing of the wonders God has put in pigeons and in Davids. “Pigeon Feathers” tells us that people do not matter, not even to themselves, unless they have immortal souls. Elsewhere Updike makes a corollary statement about fiction. Without souls, he asks, “are mundane lives worth writing about?” Art becomes a form of affirmation. Updike didn’t want a better world, he only wanted this one, forever. He may not have thought that everything was holy—he wasn’t pious or sentimental—but he thought that it was beautiful, to use the language of art, and he certainly thought, to use the language of Genesis, that it was good. And men and women (their sins included)—they were very good.
From these convictions, plus a dose of American materialism, a belief in the solidity of things, followed Updike’s realist aesthetic. He had once aspired to be a visual artist, had spent the year after college at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford, and his powers of observation were second to none:
Fort Carré was taking the sun on one chalk-yellow side in the cubistic way that happens only in French light, and the Mediterranean wore a curious double horizon of hazed blue, and Nice in the distance was like a long heap of pale flakes shed by the starkly brilliant Alps beyond.
But his eye for the surface of objects was nothing to his gift for seeing people— seeing manners, moods, emotions. A character in Couples is “a toothy ruddy man with a soft air of having done well at school.” A coke fiend “smokes a cigarette as if he’s feeding himself something through a tube.” Two young women say goodbye at a party, the husband of the second watching with suspicion: “Pam giving Pru a kiss on the cheek woman to woman as if whispering the code word in her ear.” Rabbit’s granddaughter delivers a fib: “Her smooth little face gets that tiptoe look which in a mature woman signals that she is about to lie.”
The “thesaurus” half of David Foster Wallace’s reported jibe is as mistaken as the “penis” part. Updike’s style owes nothing to abstruse vocabulary. Its resources are beyond enumeration, but its essence, as in these examples, is his gift for simile and metaphor, a running counterpoint of figurative commentary, charging every line with wit, that delivers us the heart of things. Nor, of course, is it merely a “style,” a matter of verbal facility. It depends on Updike’s being, in Henry James’s definition of the novelist, someone on whom nothing is lost. Here’s a sentence that Updike wrote when he was twenty-three, about a wife whose neighbor has agreed to stay for one more drink: “She hooked her arm over the back of the chair and wound her hand through the slats, like a child assuring herself that her bedtime has been postponed.” That isn’t just an observation; it’s an observation squared. It depends on seeing that the woman’s action resembles a child’s, but it also depends on having previously registered how children act.
There is stuff like this on every page. You don’t have hands enough to catch the sweets that Updike showers down. He never lost the “Disney” part of his ambition, the desire to delight. His prose embodies what his stories examine: that most American of subjects, the pursuit of happiness. That is what Couples is about, and that is certainly what the Rabbit cycle is about—with stress on the pursuit, the running part. Updike believed in America, but with a powerful ambivalence. Rabbit puts it perfectly—dressed as Uncle Sam on the Fourth of July, no less—“all in all this is the happiest fucking country the world has ever seen.”
Happiest, with Rabbit’s ever-present undertone of angry self-pity. Happiest, with a happiness that’s always fleeting, always fleeing, always piling up the damage and the waste. The Rabbit novels are a great symphony of American junk, accumulating in suburbs and arteries, of American lives, killed and wounded in families and wars. The country is winding down, like Rabbit himself, a large, selfish, thwarted power. The pursuit becomes ever more desperate. “What will become of us,” Updike had paraphrased the theme of The Poorhouse Fair, the novel that preceded Rabbit, Run, “having lost our faith?” In Rabbit at Rest, Rabbit thinks, “We’re all trash, really. Without God to lift us up and make us into angels we’re all trash.” Half-wistfully, half- desperately he wonders, “There must be a good way to live.”
Like the rooster on the steeple of the church in Couples—the eye of God, or a very ironical version thereof—Updike watches, but he doesn’t judge. He doesn’t judge Rabbit’s unbreakable narcissism, his inability to love anyone except himself, including his children. He doesn’t judge the couples in Couples, neglecting their own children. That he doesn’t judge has been the hardest thing for readers to accept, both then and now. But judgment clouds the eye, and in any case Updike understood how fully he was implicated. He understood— the American engine and the American tragedy—that happiness is something that we cannot not pursue.
The Updikes’ marriage almost ended once, in 1962, when John fell in love with a neighbor named Joyce Harrington. It ended for good, following another dozen years of on-and-off affairs on either side, when he fell in love with a second neighbor, Martha Bernhard. The Updikes had sold the Bernhards their house when the latter moved to Ipswich four years earlier. Martha’s husband later married Joyce.
John and Martha wed in 1977, a marriage that lasted the rest of his life. Martha served as manager and gatekeeper, protecting Updike’s productivity within the hilltop mansion (he had four studies on the second floor) that he bought a few towns over from Ipswich. There were no more neighbors now, and even Updike’s adult children were kept at something of a distance. Begley, understandably, has little to say about his subject’s personal life over the course of Updike’s final decades. We are left with the work, in its Amazonian flow, and the impression one gets of the work, whatever its uneven quality, is of an endless, questing curiosity, a mind that wanted to encompass everything.
There were essays and occasional pieces on a wide variety of subjects (golf, his favorite pastime, was a special interest) collected in gigantic volumes issued on a steady basis. There was art criticism for The New Republic and The New York Review of Books. There were novels and stories inspired by his copious travels with Martha—two or three foreign excursions a year—including The Coup, set in Africa; Brazil; parts of The Widows of Eastwick; and more than half of the Bechs.
There was Henry Bech himself, Updike’s alter ego with a twist. Bech is a famous writer, but he is also Jewish. (And Jewish, this Jew thinks, at least, with a convincing mordant gloomy Jewish wit: “Wendell asked Bech what he was writing now, and Bech said nothing, he was proofreading his old books, and finding lots of typos.”) Bech was Updike’s instrument for exploring a form of otherness of which the Pennsylvania Gentile had been cognizant, no doubt increasingly, at least since Harvard. Jews had been a growing presence in American culture, especially American literary culture, throughout the middle of the century. Bech was birthed, in fact, on a State Department trip with Cheever to the Soviet bloc in 1964, during which, Begley says, “The two Johns joked about being the last non-Jewish writers in America.” Bech was Updike’s acknowledgment that the paradigmatic postwar American writer was a Jewish one; that in speaking from the heartland, Updike had himself become anomalous.
But most of all, as evidence of Updike’s giant appetite to know, there was Rabbit. Wallace, classing him not only as a phallocrat but also as a “Great Male Narcissist,” gets the older writer wrong again: “Updike ... has for years been constructing protagonists who are basically all the same guy ... and who are all clearly stand-ins for the author himself.” But while Rabbit may share his creator’s geographic provenance, that’s about all he shares. He isn’t Updike, he’s the kind of person Updike left behind— the jock he wrote about at Harvard, the kids at New Year’s in “The Happiest I’ve Been,” the ones who never have the chance, the gifts, to escape. Rabbit was his eyes and ears in Shillington and Reading, his line in to an average American consciousness, and in particular, a “typical” consciousness—white, male, Protestant, heterosexual, bobbing up and down within the middle class—as it made its way, becoming ever less typical, through the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s: Vietnam, recession, Reaganomics; Apollo, gas lines, Japanese; blacks and gays and Women’s Lib; marijuana, heroin, and coke.
If the second volume, Rabbit Redux, is the finest, that’s because it integrates most brilliantly the personal and national stories—finds a way, like the crazed and canny black veteran, half-avenger, half-messiah, who invades the hero’s household, to bring the war home. Installments three and four feel further from the heart of things. Rabbit is increasingly a spectator at the national drama, but one who stuffs the volumes with perceptions unmistakably his own. “When you see pictures of her [Donna Summer] ... she’s much less black than you imagine, a thin-cheeked yellow staring out at you like what are you going to do about it.” “These Mediterranean types don’t even seem to get gray and paunchy. ... They use their bodies up neatly, like mopping up a dinner plate with bread.” “The world keeps ending but new people too dumb to know it keep showing up as if the fun’s just started.”
Does the Rabbit cycle finally cohere? Does it amount to the “epic” that its author dreamed of writing, Begley tells us, in his youth? Maybe not. Maybe, like Rabbit, it loses momentum and shape. Maybe Updike never did write that one big book, that single indelible masterpiece. Maybe his corpus is less than the sum of its parts. But what parts.