Monday, April 27, 2009


When John Updike died, I read him for the first time. The New Yorker ran a selection of prose that snared me, particularly a piece about a man joining a pick-up basketball game.

Boys are playing basketball around a telephone pole with a backboard bolted to it. Legs, shouts. The scrape and snap of Keds on loose alley pebbles seems to catapult their voices high into the moist March air blue above the wires. Rabbit Angstrom, coming up the alley in a business suit, stops and watches, though he's twenty-six and six three. So tall, he seems an unlikely rabbit, but the breadth of white face, the pallor of his blue irises, and a nervous flutter under his brief nose as he stabs a cigarette into his mouth partially explain the nickname, which was given to him when he too was a boy. He stands there thinking, the kids keep coming, they keep crowding you up.
I later learned this gorgeous passage was from the beginning of Rabbit, Run. Hard times have reduced the book budget, but I convinced mrs. august to support purchase of the paperback.

I should have gone to the library. Somehow I missed that Updike's quartet of novels feature a first degree schmuck, Harry Angstrom, the "rabbit" of the title who is too timid to make a decision and simply drifts around hoping for a redemptive moment, or at least the passing exhilaration of a good golf swing.

I do not require protagonists to be good. I love Humbert Humbert, who is klutzily evil and is all too gloriously aware of both his demons and his incompetence. In Rabbit, Run, the figure who bothers me is not Rabbit, but Updike.

My sympathy for Humbert comes in spite of my revulsion, but Updike wants to make the revolting sympathetic. Pauline Kael once wrote a review of Clockwork Orange in which she took Stanley Kubrick to task for making the audience cheer on the main character:
Stanley Kubrick's Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is not so much an expression of how this society has lost its soul as he is a force pitted against the society, and by making the victims of the thugs more repulsive and contemptible than the thugs Kubrick has learned to love the punk sadist. The end is no longer the ironic triumph of a mechanized punk but a real triumph. Alex is the only likable person we see -- his cynical bravado suggests a broad-nosed, working-class Olivier -- more alive than anybody else in the movie...
So too with Rabbit Angstrom. He is the only complete character in the novel, and I am meant to see his quest as noble. I'm supposed to feel his pain, to want to leave an alcoholic wife and fart about town in search of sex acts amenable to purple prose. We only meet his abandoned wife for a few pages, the only time the omniscient, present-tense narration enters her mind, just in time for her to drown her baby. Do not commit adultery, but if you do, take the kids

I can see the argument that Humbert is just as bad, that you can't love Lolita without loving Lolita. But in fact you can, and part of what makes Humbert so morosely depressing is the gulf between his reveries and the truth of teenagers. Humbert also anticipated the oversexualized world of now. We should all be so self-hating.

Both Humbert and Angstrom are literary creations that germinated language and allowed new angles on post-war America. The problem is that I don't find Updike's lens to be all that interesting. Maybe it was more revolutionary in 1960 to note that young men can be dissatisfied in their marriages, unable to express their feelings, and self-absorbed. Rabbit is too bland to be incisive, and Updike offers no other opening into the novel's world. I feel no better equipped to make sense of Rabbit and his habitat at the end of the novel, and by then I don't care.