When John Updike published Rabbit, Run in 1960—though he was only twenty-eight, it was his fourth book and second novel—no one could have expected that it would be the first of a continuing, if intermittent, chronicle of working-class life in a small industrial town of southern Pennsylvania. In vision and idea Rabbit, Run was remarkably seamless and whole. Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom’s life beyond the last words of the novel seemed irreversible and fixed, so easily predictable that there could be nothing left to say. Now Updike has written the third volume in the life and times of Rabbit Angstrom, and the most startling thing about it is its title, Rabbit Is Rich.1

No such fate seemed less likely to befall the scared hero of the first book and its sequel, Rabbit Redux (1971), the perpetually overaged boy, manacled to the memories of his short-lived glory as a high-school basketball star, who does not know how to grow up. This kind of arrested development is quintessentially American, involving as it does our obsession with youth and the mystical power of sport as heroism and sport as the embodiment of battle. It transcends class, since it afflicts the tarnished golden boys of John Cheever’s Westchester as it does the blue-collar Rabbit Angstrom. But the unhappy, bad-luck figure of the ex-athlete provided Updike with the opportunity to draw a meticulous and compassionate portrait of small-town America in the 50’s. The novelist’s pitying affection for Rabbit, a huge, inarticulate dreamer caught in a bewildering trap of sexual, economic, and psychological helplessness, acquired its tense integrity from Updike’s unsentimental clarity, and allowed him to embrace Angstrom’s world without patronizing it. For that reason, Rabbit, Run remains the most affecting and least stylistically overwrought of Updike’s novels.

Its sequel a decade later, Rabbit Redux, revealed a less winning side of Updike’s virtuosity. Written during a time of extraordinary social and political turmoil, the novel was a display case for the Zeitgeist, and the result was as contrived as it was emotionally meretricious. The tenderness that was so palpable beneath the bleak hopelessness of Rabbit, Run had now given way to a shrill, topical tattoo—the first moon landing and the Vietnam war, black revolution and sexual promiscuity, middle-class dropouts and drugs. Whereas the young Rabbit (in the first novel) was forever running away from his morose, alcoholic wife, ten years later Janice takes her cue from the times, deserting husband and child for a more trendy and sophisticated lover who sneers at Rabbit’s muddled patriotism, his defense of the war, and his naive certainty that “Wherever America is, there is freedom, and wherever America is not madness rules with chains. . . .” Drenched in irony, Updike’s lapidary brilliance grew slick and verged on the tendentious as he turned Harry Angstrom into a symbol of Middle America, a peg for political and cultural attitudes that the writer now found morally questionable. The issue was not really political—Updike’s own political sympathies in the book seemed to be, if not masked, then certainly profoundly ambivalent. Rather, the issue was one of Updike’s relation to his central character. Once the fragile links of sympathy between writer and character are broken, condescension threatens to fill the void. The more Rabbit was manipulated to demonstrate how Updike had mastered the historical moment, the more synthetic the novel became. More important, it made problematic Updike’s relation to his locale.

The great or compelling writer has both a voice and a country which he inhabits so completely that we cannot think of him as belonging anywhere else: Bellow’s Chicago, Faulkner’s Mississippi, Günter Grass’s Danzig, Robert Penn Warren’s South. It does not matter that they sometimes write about other places and forsake their “countries” for years and books on end; their right to this territory of the imagination can never be disputed.

Updike’s problem is that, though his voice is brilliant, he does not know what territory to claim. His reputation is that of the archetypical New Yorker writer—worldly, witty, eloquent, detached—who can write with knowledgeable grace about everything from Ted Williams and the Red Sox to Roland Barthes and French structuralism. Yet there is also Updike’s fascination for over two decades with the drab, inarticulate, small-town world of Rabbit Angstrom. In fact Updike himself also comes from a small town in Pennsylvania. Though not from the same class—his father was a schoolteacher—he must have known people like Rabbit in high school and has been trying to understand himself, if only as an observer, in relation to them. But his ambition, as well as his wide-ranging curiosity, provided him with very different fictional settings.

His first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, was a canny move; unlike most novelists, who start out writing about their youth, he chose to deal with the very old. A number of his novels, such as Couples and Marry Me, described the sexual quadrilles in middle-class suburbs, but they seemed little more than short stories he had already written several times over, and they are several times forgotten. More recently he bravely tried his hand at an ambitious political novel, The Coup, a very uneven but witty comedy about an African dictator, but the effect of the story was undercut by romantic simplicities about the corruption of African purity by American materialism.2 Yet none of these places was the terrain a novelist needs to stake out, to know that this is his land.

_____________

 

In Rabbit Is Rich, Updike now seems to be making that claim. With three rabbits scampering around the field, Updike has a country, a set of narratives which have continuity over time, fixity of place, and a river-run he can command as his own. Yet in returning to the small Pennsylvania town of Brewer, he has still not clarified his intentions. On the one hand he seems to have wanted to bring his continuing chronicle of Middle America up to date in a documentary novel similar to Rabbit Redux, shuttling between the fevered news of the world and the quotidian ordinariness of Harry Angstrom’s life, as the American dream comes increasingly under siege. On the other hand, John Updike has understandably been meditating, at the age of forty-eight, about the profit and loss of middle age, with its diminishing expectations and its threat of dwindling powers. And, in the middle of the journey, he is returning to a character whose passage over time matches his own.

The immediate difficulty, however, stems not only from the return to this familiar locale, but from the writer’s voice. To be authentic, the two must somehow be of a piece—the nervous rhythms of Chicago for Bellow, the lazy delta speech for Eudora Welty, etc. Harry Angstrom, never much of a thinker, is an unlikely vessel for the intellectual novelist’s elegant reflection about the dark wood where the journey takes place. The voice of the novel is presumably Harry’s, but the prose oscillates between flat colloquialism (one chapter begins: “The hostages have been taken. Nelson [Rabbit’s son] has been working at Springer Motors for a month. Teresa [Nelson’s wife] is seven months pregnant”) and Updikean lyricism. One wonders how the man who never went beyond high school and never reads a book becomes miraculously capable, on a flight to the Caribbean, of this sinewy eloquence:

He doesn’t mind getting a little high, but he doesn’t want to sacrifice awareness of the colors around him, of the revelation that outside Brewer there is a planet without ruts in it. In such moments of adventure he is impatient with his body that its five windows aren’t enough, he can’t get the world all in. . . . God, having shrunk in Harry’s middle years to the size of a raisin lost under the car seat, is suddenly great again, everywhere like a radiant wind.

Where did these crystalline images come from, as though Harry were speaking in tongues?

Updike seems to have been perfectly serious when he told the Harvard Crimson, not long after Rabbit Redux was published, that “intellectually, I’m not essentially advanced over Harry Angstrom. I went to Harvard, it’s true, and wasn’t much good at basketball . . . other than that we’re rather similar.” So much for Harvard. But what he was talking about, one would guess, is his claim to understand Harry Angstrom completely. Though he may have resolved to confine himself to the mind and language of Rabbit, he could not tolerate the verbal strait-jacket for very long. Time and again the importunate images break through, and while they can be beautiful and instructive, the illusion of authenticity is destroyed.

We are too aware in reading Rabbit Is Rich of the distance between Harry Angstrom and John Updike. And it is the confusion of voices above all that warns us this may not be Updike’s country. To hedge against the muddle at the heart of the book, Updike has wrapped his characters in a carapace of bad news from 1979: Sky-lab is falling, the inflation rate is rising, gasoline supplies are shrinking, and Brewer’s black population is growing. Hard times are back, but at forty-six Harry Angstrom, paunchy and easily winded, thinks he can keep the rot at bay, for a while at least, because he is now well off.

Unemployed at the end of Rabbit Redux, his linotyper’s job lost to technological progress, Harry, long since reconciled with Janice, inherited her father’s Toyota agency after the old man died, and it has flourished with OPEC greed. Though he no longer feels threatened by life “now that he has a margin of resources,” and the panic that dogged him has stilled, Harry is depressed by the feeling that everything is winding down and running dry, that the weight of time has left “patches of burnt-out gray cells where there used to be wild lust and dreaming and wild-eyed dread. . . .” Money can’t remove the canker of unease, and he wonders what he has done with his life, why “a stony truce seems to prevail between him and God.”

_____________

 

The domestic crises in Harry’s life are bound into a tight web of carefully deployed facts about the events of the day: not just sensational news like the taking of the hostages, or the zooming prices of gold and silver, but the football-and-television brine of popular culture that pickles the Angstrom family and millions more like them. We are told exactly how, every fact and figure burnished to a high gloss of accuracy, Toyotas are sold, and how to arrange for the best mortgage in a time of swollen interest rates. Updike bestows this explicitly detailed factuality on Harry’s sex life as well, and even at its kinkiest this has no more interest than the names of all those sit-coms and game shows. By now this kind of voyeuristic description has become so commonplace in novels, and so boring, that one wonders why it’s there. What passed for uninhibited boldness in the earlier Rabbit novels now seems self-indulgent, just another set of hackneyed facts substituting for thought and imagination.

What is Updike trying to tell us about the middle-aged crisis of the American soul in these unrelenting accounts of Harry Angstrom as lover and as automobile dealer? Updike has said elsewhere that he finds the Middle American world full of mystery, but he has made little effort in Rabbit Is Rich to illuminate its dark reality. The real mystery is why he has chosen to remain so strenuously on the surface of Harry Angstrom’s life, content with a cold literalness of sex and cars and television that is against the grain of his imaginative intelligence and his gift for the delicate revelations of metaphor (admittedly a gift he overworks, but a gift for all that). The topical flags he sets up to alert us to the critical urgencies of this time and this place reek of calculation. And the ruminations about middle age and its lengthening shadows convey more sentiment than feeling. If Middle America is indeed a mystery, its secrets have evaded Updike. It is not his country.

_____________

 

Thomas Berger is another prolific novelist without a country but possessed of a distinctive voice. In one of the strangest literary careers in recent memory, Berger has set himself the task of mastering many different genres—Western, private eye, hardboiled crime documentary, Arthurian legend, science fiction (with a message about sex roles), and, in the recent Neighbors, Kafkaesque fable about motiveless harassment and victimization. Yet that witty and mordant voice is clearly heard in only four of the eleven novels Berger has published over the past twenty-two years.

This group stands outside his experimental forays into various genres, and deals with an engaging creature named Carlo Reinhart, the protagonist of Berger’s first novel, Crazy in Berlin (1958). He is a huge, intellectually eager but unfinished G.I. racketing around the American Zone just after the end of the war, and he turns up again at irregular intervals in Reinhart in Love. Vital Parts, and now Reinhart’s Women.3 That first novel was an ambitious mixture of high moral earnestness and knockabout farce, in which the callow twenty-one-year-old Reinhart, at once guilty and brashly assertive about his German ancestry, forces himself to think honestly, for the first time in his life, about his unexamined prejudices toward the Jews, his ambiguous feelings about the Germans, and the sober lessons of the war. Unlike his fellow-soldiers, most of whom are high-rolling entrepreneurs in the black market, Reinhart wants to hear out the ordinary Germans he meets, and he thus becomes the recipient of some bizarre confessions that may or may not be true.

But on another level of Crazy in Berlin, beyond the obsessive monologues about Jewishness and Germanness, Reinhart’s escapades displayed Berger’s exuberant talent for ridiculing the military. Though anticipating the mood of Catch-22, Berger’s novel was much more demanding in language and ideas, which probably explains why Heller’s novel, published three years later, caught the tide of success that Berger missed.

In Reinhart in Love (1962), he is mustered out of the Army and comes home to Ohio, where he is constantly entangled in the extravagant lunacies of postwar America, and marries the meanest girl in town. Except for some sharptongued asides about the fools and scoundrels who plague his days, Reinhart no longer gives much thought to the burning issues of political and personal morality that had absorbed him in Berlin; daily life has proved too much for him.

It became brilliantly clear in the next volume, Vital Parts (1970), that Berger is a master of satirical farce, instinctively drawn to the mad, the ludicrous, the grotesque. For some perverse reason he has given himself the room farce demands only in this wonderfully funny novel, which converts the world of Reinhart into gleeful caricature which never lapses into cruelty. Reinhart’s wife is not merely bitchy but demented on a grand scale. The nasty insolence of his radical hippie son is unmitigated by the faintest stirrings of guilt or self-doubt. In his son’s eyes Reinhart, who marched off at eighteen to fight the Nazis, “was now just another dirty old fascist.” In fact the fascist fails at everything he undertakes, and for a while he seems doomed to remaining a fat voyeur and a hopeless loser, needled by blighted memories of a time when he aspired to be a philosopher king “vitalized by the blood of a poet’s expansive heart.” In a plot thick with mad scientists, shady millionaires, weird but sexy secretaries, and respectable—indeed, Republican—prostitutes, Reinhart struggles to keep his head clear of the pounding chaos, and only in the end discovers that a father’s love for his overweight and gormless daughter can be his salvation.

Though the Berger of Vital Parts, with its ingenious absurdities and slapstick vitality, might be thought to bear some resemblance to horsemen of the apocalypse like Vonnegut and Pynchon, his sensibility is crucially different. He came closest to their mood in Crazy in Berlin, set as it was in a time and place not yet recovered from the insanities of war, but not even there did Berger indulge in the doom-haunted cackling of the absurdists, and in the later Reinhart novels he was too deeply engaged with the comic fate of one good man to reduce him to a prophetic symbol of the cataclysm before us. In any case Berger is too quirky and too much of a loner to join any modish chorus. Indeed, in the past decade he has removed himself so reclusively from the literary hurly-burly that, according to one account, his publisher has never met him.

_____________

 

Paradoxically, the tone of Vital Parts, even at its most antic, is genial—not a quality one associates with a recluse. But this geniality has led to a bewildering slackness in Reinhart’s Women. The farcical episodes have become strained and unfunny, which is perhaps inevitable in a novel whose principal, indeed obsessive, subject is the joy of cooking. And not just boiling and buttering, as Julia Child once characterized the main activity in American kitchens, but the intricate art of French high cuisine. In the ten years since Reinhart divorced his rebarbative wife at the end of Vital Parts, and settled down contentedly with his daughter, he has discovered that “cooking was the only thing in life he had ever done well.” The would-be philosopher king, a flop at selling real estate and TV sets (not to mention a harebrained scheme for freezing the dead), has at last found his true calling. Comfortably supported by his daughter, now a thin and beautiful model, Reinhart can whip up oeufs en meurette or a rich dacquoise with imperturbable ease while passing bemused judgment on the changing scence in “the most boring era in the history of the race.”

The once vicious hippie son is now a no less vicious stockbroker and an insufferable prig. Another relic of the 60’s once leader of the Black Assassins, now runs a religious commune. Reinhart’s wife comes back to torment him. But nothing that happens in the course of Reinhart’s Women engages Thomas Berger’s imagination very deeply—except for the preparation and consumption of all manner of glorious food. Unlike that other zealous celebrant of cooking in fiction, Günter Grass, who was equally generous with recipes and kitchen hints in The Flounder, Berger has not bothered to relate his culinary enthusiasm to some loftier and less perishable theme. Food in a novel, however expertly described, offers little food for thought.

In this last book, Berger seems to have closed in upon himself. None of the genre novels has been a parody, and Berger claims to be celebrating each form he turns to, but there is a self-conscious sterility to most of these displays of literary virtuosity. Only the Western, Little Big Man, breathed an air of its own unbeholden to the cast-iron mold of formula. Yet Vital Parts, loose and free, crackles with exuberant vitality as Berger skewers the malice and greed that threaten his good-natured and feckless hero on every side. It is hard to know what to make of Berger’s idiosyncratic body of work, but one thing is clear: the Reinhart lode has been exhausted. Perhaps Berger, and Updike, should listen to Harry Angstrom’s complaint about the movies: “D’you ever get the feeling everything these days is sequels? . . . Like people are running out of ideas.”

1 Knopf, 390 pp., $13.95.

2 I reviewed this novel in COMMENTARY, April 1979.

3 Delacorte, 295 pp., $13.95.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link