John Updike joins Modern Classics this month. Here, the man himself talks about how he wrote his ‘Rabbit’ novels
The United States, democratic and various though it is, is not an easy country for a fiction-writer to enter: the slot between the fantastic and the drab seems too narrow. An outsiderish literary stance is traditional; such masterpieces as Moby-Dick and Huckleberry Finn deal with marginal situations and eccentric, rootless characters; many American writers have gone into exile to find subjects of a congenial color and dignity. The puritanism and practicality of the early settlers imposed a certain enigmatic dullness, it may be, upon the nation’s affective life and social texture. The minimization of class distinctions suppressed one of the articulating elements of European fiction, and a close, delighted grasp of the psychology of sexual relations – so important in French and English novels – came slowly amid the New World’s austerities. Insofar as a writer can take an external view of his own work, my impression is that the character of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom was for me a way in – a ticket to the America all around me. What I saw through Rabbit’s eyes was more worth telling than what I saw through my own, though the difference was often slight; his life, less defended and logocentric than my own, went places mine could not. As a phantom of my imagination, he was always, as the contemporary expression has it, there for me, willing to generate imagery and motion. He kept alive my native sense of wonder and hazard.
A writer aspires not to describe his work but to call it into being. Of these four related novels, I know principally – and that by the fallible light of recollection – what went into them, what stimuli and ambitions and months of labor. Each was composed at the end of a decade and published at the beginning of the next one; they became a kind of running report on the state of my hero and his nation, and their ideal reader became a fellow-American who had read and remembered the previous novels about Rabbit Angstrom. At some point between the second and third of the series, I began to visualize four completed novels that might together make a single coherent volume, a mega-novel. Now, thanks to Everyman’s Library, this volume exists, titled, as I had long hoped, with the name of the protagonist, an everyman who, like all men, was unique and mortal.
Rabbit, Run was begun, early in 1959, with no thought of a sequel. Indeed, it was not yet clear to me, though I had one short novel to my credit, that I was a novelist at all. At the age of twenty-seven I was a short-story writer by trade, a poet and light-versifier on the side, and an ex-reporter for The New Yorker. I had come, two years before, to New England to try my luck at freelancing. Rabbit, Run at first was modestly conceived as a novella, to form with another, The Centaur, a biune study of complementary moral types: the rabbit and the horse, the zigzagging creature of impulse and the plodding beast of stoic duty. Rabbit took off; as I sat at a little upright desk in a small corner room of the first house I owned, in Ipswich, Massachusetts, writing in soft pencil, the present-tense sentences accumulated and acquired momentum. It was a seventeenth-century house with a soft pine floor, and my kicking feet, during those excited months of composition, wore two bare spots in the varnish. The handwritten draft was completed, I noted at the end, on 11 September 1959. I typed it up briskly and sent it off to my publisher just as the decade ended and headed, with my family, to the then-remote Caribbean island of Anguilla.
There, after some weeks of tropical isolation, I received a basically heartening letter from my publisher, Alfred A. Knopf himself, indicating acceptance with reservations. The reservations turned out to be (he could tell me this only face to face, so legally touchy was the matter) sexually explicit passages that might land us – this was suggested with only a glint of irony – in jail. Books were still banned in Boston in those days; no less distinguished an author than Edmund Wilson had been successfully prosecuted, in New York State in 1946, for Memoirs of Hecate County. My models in sexual realism had been Wilson and D. H. Lawrence and Erskine Caldwell and James M. Cain and of course James Joyce, whose influence resounds, perhaps all too audibly, in the book’s several female soliloquies. Not wishing, upon reflection, to lose the publisher who made the handsomest books in America, and doubting that I could get a more liberal deal elsewhere, I did, while sitting at the elbow of a young lawyer evidently expert in this delicate area, consent to a number of excisions – not always the ones I would have expected. It was, I thought, a tactful and non-fatal operation. The American edition appeared toward the end of 1960 without legal incident; in England, Victor Gollancz asked for still more cuts and declined to publish the Knopf text as it was, but the youthful firm of André Deutsch did. The dirty-word situation was changing rapidly, with the legally vindicated publication of Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of
Cancer. Censorship went from retreat to rout, and when I asked Penguin Books, late in 1962, if I could make some emendations and restorations for their edition, they permissively consented.
For ten pages a day that winter, sitting in a rented house in Antibes, France, I went through Rabbit, Run, restoring the cuts and trying to improve the prose throughout. This text was the one that appeared in the Modern Library and eventually in Knopf
hardcover; I have made a few further corrections and improvements for this printing. Rabbit, Run, in keeping with its jittery, indecisive protagonist, exists in more forms than any other novel of mine. Yet my intent was simple enough: to show a high-school athletic hero in the wake of his glory days. My father had been a high-school teacher, and one of his extra-curricular duties was to oversee the ticket receipts for our basketball games. Accompanying him, then, at home and away, I saw a great deal of high school basketball, and a decade later was still well imbued with its heroics, as they are thumpingly, sweatily enacted in the hotly lit intimacy of jam-packed high-school gymnasiums. Our Pennsylvania town of Shillington was littered, furthermore, with the wrecks of former basketball stars, and a thematically kindred short story, “Ace in the Hole”, and poem, “Ex-Basketball Player”, had preceded Rabbit into print:
Once Flick played for the high-school team, the Wizards.
He was good: in fact, the best. In ’46
He bucketed three hundred ninety points,
A county record still. The ball loved Flick.
I saw him rack up thirty-eight or forty
In one home game. His hands were like wild birds.
To this adolescent impression of splendor my adult years had added sensations of domestic interdependence and claustrophobia. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road came out in 1957 and, without reading it, I resented its apparent instruction to cut loose; Rabbit,
Run was meant to be a realistic demonstration of what happens when a young American family man goes on the road – the people left behind get hurt. There was no painless dropping out of the Fifties’ fraying but still tight social weave. Arriving at so
prim a moral was surely not my only intention: the book ends on an ecstatic, open note that was meant to stay open, as testimony to our heart’s stubborn amoral quest for something once called grace. The title can be read as a piece of advice. (My echo of a British music show tune from 1939, by Noel Gay and Ralph Butler, was unintentional; just recently I was given the sheet music of “Run, Rabbit, – Run!” and read the lyrics’ injunction “Don’t give the farmer his fun, fun, fun. / He’ll get by without his rabbit pie.”)
The present tense was a happy discovery for me. It has fitfully appeared in English-language fiction – Damon Runyon used it in his tough tall tales, and Dawn Powell in the mid-Thirties has a character observe, “It was an age of the present tense, the
stevedore style.” But I had encountered it only in Joyce Cary’s remarkable Mister Johnson, fifteen or so years after its publication in 1939. In a later edition of that ground-breaking portrait of a West African entrapped by colonialism, Cary wrote of the present tense that it “can give to a reader that sudden feeling of insecurity (as if the very ground were made only of a deeper kind of darkness) which comes to a traveller who is bushed in unmapped country, when he feels all at once that not only has he utterly lost his way, but also his own identity.” At one point Rabbit is literally lost, and tears up a map he cannot read; but the present tense, to me as I began to write in it, felt not so much ominous as exhilaratingly speedy and free – free of the grammatical bonds of the traditional past tense and of the subtly dead, muffling hand it lays upon every action. To write “he says” instead of “he said” was rebellious and liberating in 1959. In the present tense, thought and act exist on one shimmering plane; the writer and reader move in a purged space, on the travelling edge of the future, without vantage for reflection or regret or a seeking of proportion. It is the way motion pictures occur before us, immersingly; my novella was originally to bear the sub-title “A Movie”, and I envisioned the credits unrolling over the shuffling legs of the boys in the opening scuffle around the backboard, as the reader hurried down the darkened aisle with his box of popcorn.
A non-judgmental immersion was my aesthetic and moral aim, when I was fresh enough in the artistic enterprise to believe that I could, in the Poundian imperative, “make it new”. The Centaur’s fifteen-year-old narrator, Peter Caldwell, awakes with a
fever after three trying days with his plodding, prancing father, and looks out the window. He is a would-be painter: The stone bare wall was a scumble of umber; my father’s footsteps thumbs of white in white. I knew what this scene was – a patch of
Pennsylvania in 1947 – and yet I did not know, was in my softly fevered state mindlessly soaked in a rectangle of colored light. I burned to paint it, just like that, in its puzzle of glory; it came upon me that I must go to Nature disarmed of perspective and stretch myself like a large transparent canvas upon her in the hope that, my submission being perfect, the imprint of a beautiful and useful truth would be taken. The religious faith that a useful truth will be imprinted by a perfect artistic submission underlies these Rabbit novels. The first one, especially, strives to convey the quality of existence itself that hovers beneath the quotidian details, what the scholastic philosophers called the ens. Rather than arrive at a verdict and a directive, I sought to present sides of an unresolvable tension intrinsic to being human. Readers who expect novelists to reward and punish and satirize their characters from a superior standpoint will be disappointed.
Unlike such estimable elders as Vonnegut, Vidal, and Mailer, I have little reformist tendency and instinct for social criticism. Perhaps the Lutheran creed of my boyhood imbued me with some of Luther’s conservatism; perhaps growing up Democrat under Franklin Roosevelt inclined me to be unduly patriotic. In any case the rhetoric of social protest and revolt which roiled the Sixties alarmed and, even, disoriented me. The calls for civil rights, racial equality, sexual equality, freer sex, and peace in Vietnam were in themselves commendable and non-threatening; it was the savagery, between 1965 and 1973, of the domestic attack upon the good faith and common sense of our government, especially of that would-be Roosevelt Lyndon B. Johnson, that astonished me. The attack came, much of it, from the intellectual elite and their draft-vulnerable children. Civil disobedience was antithetical to my Fifties education, which had inculcated, on the professional level, an impassioned but cool aestheticism and implied, on the private, salvation through sensibility, which included an ironical detachment from the social issues fashionable in the Thirties. But the radicalizing Thirties had come round again, in psychedelic colors.
I coped by moving, with my family, to England for a year, and reading in the British Museum about James Buchanan. Buchanan (1791–1868) was the only Pennsylvanian ever elected to the White House; the main triumph of his turbulent term (1857–61) was that, though elderly, he survived it, and left it to his successor, Abraham Lincoln, to start the Civil War. A pro-Southern Democrat who yet denied any Constitutional states’ right to secede, he embodied for me the drowned-out voice of careful, fussy reasonableness. For over a year, I read American history and tried unsuccessfully to shape this historical figure’s dilemmas into a work of fiction. But my attempted pages showed me too earthbound a realist or too tame a visionary for the vigorous fakery of a historical novel.
By the first month of 1970, back in the United States, I gave up the attempt. But then, what to do? I owed my publisher a novel, and had not come up with one. From the start of our relationship, I had thought it a right and mutually profitable rhythm to offer Knopf a novel every other book. In the ten years since Rabbit, Run had ended on its ambiguous note, a number of people asked me what happened to him. It came to me that he would have run around the block, returned to Mt. Judge and Janice, faced what music there was, and be now an all-too-settled working man – a Linotyper. For three summers I had worked as a copy boy in a small-city newspaper and had admired the men in green eyeshades as they perched at their square-keyed keyboards and called down a rain of brass matrices to become hot lead slugs, to become columns of type. It was the blue-collar equivalent of my sedentary, word-productive profession. He would be, my thirty-six-year-old Rabbit, one of those middle Americans feeling overwhelmed and put upon by all the revolutions in the air; he would serve as a receptacle for my disquiet and resentments, which would sit more becomingly on him than on me. Rabbit to the rescue, and as before his creator was in a hurry. An examination of the manuscript reveals what I had forgotten, that I typed the first draft – the only novel of the four of which this is true. I began on 7 February 1970, finished that first draft on 11 December, and had it typed up by Palm Sunday 1971 – which means that my publisher worked fast to get it out before the end of that year. If the novel achieved nothing else, it revived the word redux, which I had encountered in titles by Dryden and Trollope. From the Latin reducere, “to bring back”, it is defined by Webster’s as “led back; specif., Med., indicating return to health after disease”. People wanted to pronounce it “raydoo”, as if it were French, but now I often see it in print, as a staple of journalese.
Rabbit became too much a receptacle, perhaps, for every item in the headlines. A number of reviewers invited me to think so. But though I have had several occasions to reread the novel, few excisions suggested themselves to me. As a reader I am carried along the curve that I described in my flap copy: “Rabbit is abandoned and mocked, his home is invaded, the world of his childhood decays into a mere sublunar void; still he clings to semblances of patriotism and paternity.” The novel is itself a moon shot: Janice’s affair launches her husband, as he and his father witness the takeoff of Apollo 11 in the Phoenix bar, into the extraterrestrial world of Jill and Skeeter. The eventual reunion of the married couple in the Safe Haven Motel is managed with the care and gingerly vocabulary of a spacecraft docking. It is the most violent and bizarre of these four novels, but then the Sixties were the most violent and bizarre of these decades. The possibly inordinate emphasis on sexual congress – an enthusiastic mixture of instruction manual and de Sadeian ballet – also partakes of the times.
In Rabbit, Run, there is very little direct cultural and political reference, apart from the burst of news items that comes over his car radio during his night of fleeing home. Of these, only the disappearance of the Dalai Lama from Tibet engages the fictional themes. In Rabbit Redux, the trip to the moon is the central metaphor. “Trip” in Sixties parlance meant an inner journey of some strangeness; the little apple-green house in Penn Villas plays host to space invaders – a middle-class runaway and a black rhetorician. The long third chapter – longer still in the first draft – is a Sixties invention, a “teachin”. Rabbit tries to learn. Reading aloud the words of Frederick Douglass, he becomes black, and in a fashion seeks solidarity with Skeeter. African Americans, Old-World readers should be reminded, have an immigrant pedigree almost as long as that of Anglo-Americans; “the Negro problem” is old in the New World. The United States is more than a tenth black; black music, black sorrow, black jubilation, black English, black style permeate the culture and have contributed much of what makes American music, especially, so globally potent. Yet the society continues racially divided, in the main, and Rabbit’s reluctant crossing of the color line represents a tortured form of progress.
The novel was meant to be symmetric with Rabbit, Run: this time, Janice leaves home and a young female dies on Harry’s watch. Expatiation of the baby’s death is the couple’s joint quest throughout the series; Harry keeps looking for a daughter, and Janice strives for competence, for a redeemed opinion of herself. Nelson remains the wounded, helplessly indignant witness. He is ever shocked by “the hardness of heart” that enables his father to live so egocentrically, as if enjoying divine favor. Rabbit, Run’s epigraph is an uncompleted thought by Pascal: “The motions of Grace, the hardness of the heart; external circumstances.” In Rabbit Redux, external circumstances bear nightmarishly upon my skittish pilgrim; he achieves a measure of recognition that the rage and destructiveness boiling out of the television set belong to him. Many of the lessons of the Sixties became part of the status quo. Veterans became doves; bankers put on love beads. Among Harry’s virtues, self-centered though he is, are the national curiosity, tolerance, and adaptability. America survives its chronic apocalypses. I did not know, though, when I abandoned to motel sleep the couple with a burnt-out house and a traumatized child, that they would wake to such prosperity.
Rabbit is rich, of course, in 1979, only by the standards of his modest working-class background. It was a lucky casual stroke of mine to give the used-car dealer Fred Springer a Toyota franchise in Rabbit Redux, for in ten years’ time the Japanese-
auto invasion had become one of the earmarks of an inflated and teetering American economy, and the Chief Sales Representative of a Toyota agency was well situated to reap advantage from American decline. As these novels had developed, each needed a clear background of news, a “hook” uniting the personal and national realms. In late June, visiting in Pennsylvania for a few days, I found the hook in the OPEC-induced
gasoline shortage and the panicky lines that cars were forming at the local pumps; our host in the Philadelphia suburbs rose early and got our car tank filled so we could get back to New England. A nuclear near-disaster had occurred at Three-Mile Island in Harrisburg that spring; Carter’s approval rating was down to thirty per cent; our man in Nicaragua was being ousted by rebels; our man in Iran was deposed and dying; John Wayne was dead; Sky-Lab was falling; and Rabbit, at forty-six, with a wife who drinks too much and a son dropping out of college, could well believe that he and the U.S. were both running out of gas. Except that he doesn’t really believe it; Rabbit Is Rich, for all its shadows, is the happiest novel of the four, the most buoyant, with happy endings for everybody in it, even the hapless Buddy Inglefinger. The novel contains a number of scenes distinctly broad in their comedy: amid the inflationary abundance of money, Harry and Janice copulate on a blanket of gold coins and stagger beneath the weight of 888 silver dollars as they lug their speculative loot up the eerily deserted main drag of Brewer. A Shakespearian swap and shuffle of couples takes place in the glimmering Arcadia of a Caribbean island, and a wedding rings out at the novel’s midpoint. “Life is sweet, that’s what they say,” Rabbit reflects in the last pages. Details poured fast and furious out of my by now thoroughly mapped and populated Diamond Country. The novel is fat, in keeping with its theme of inflation, and Pru is fat with her impending child, whose growth is the book’s secret action, its innermost happiness.
My own circumstances had changed since the writing of Rabbit Redux. I was married to another wife, which may help account for Janice’s lusty rejuvenation, and living in another town, called Georgetown, twenty minutes inland from Ipswich. Each of the Rabbit novels was written in a different setting – Redux belonged to my second house in Ipswich, on the winding, winsomely named Labor-in-Vain Road, and to my rented
office downtown, above a restaurant whose noontime aromas of lunch rose through the floor each day to urge my writing to its daily conclusion. Whereas Ipswich had a distinguished Puritan history and some grand seaside scenery, Georgetown was an
unassuming population knot on the way to other places. It reminded me of Shillington, and the wooden house that we occupied for six years was, like the brick house I had spent my first thirteen years in, long and narrow, with a big back yard and a front view of a well-trafficked street. The town was littered with details I only needed to stoop over and pick up and drop into Mt. Judge’s scenery; my evening jogs through Georgetown could slip almost unaltered into Rabbit’s panting peregrinations three hundred miles away. In two respects his fortunes had the advantage of mine: I was not a member of any country club, nor yet a grandfather. Within five years, I would achieve both privileged states, but for the time being they had to be, like the procedures of a Toyota agency, dreamed up. A dreamy mood pervades the book; Rabbit almost has to keep pinching himself to make sure that his bourgeois bliss is real – that he is, if not as utterly a master of householdry and husbandry as the ineffable Webb Murkett, in the same exalted league.
Once in an interview I had rashly predicted the title of this third installment to be Rural Rabbit; some of the words Harry and Janice exchange in the Safe Haven Motel leave the plot open for a country move. But in the event he remained a smallcity boy, a creature of sidewalks, gritty alleys, roaring highways, and fast-food franchises. One of Rabbit, Run’s adventures in my mind had been its location in Brewer, whose model, the city of Reading, had loomed for a Shillington child as an immense, remote, menacing, and glamorous metropolis. Rabbit, like every stimulating alter ego, was many things the author was not: a natural athelete, a blue-eyed Swede, sexually magnetic, taller than six feet, impulsive, and urban. The rural Rabbit turns out to be Ruth, from the first novel, whom he flushes from her cover in his continued search for a daughter. Farms I knew firsthand, at least in their sensory details, from the years of rural residence my mother had imposed on her family after 1945. Rabbit spying on Ruth from behind the scratchy hedgerow is both Peter Rabbit peeking from behind the cabbages at the menacing Mr. McGregor and I, the self-exiled son, guiltily spying on my mother as, in plucky and self-reliant widowhood, she continued to occupy her sandstone farmhouse and eighty acres all by herself. She did not, in fairness, keep the shell of a school bus in her yard; rather, the town fleet of yellow school buses was visible from the window of my drafty study in Georgetown.
Though 1979 was running out, I seem to have worked at a leisurely speed: the end of the first draft is dated 19 April 1980, and seven more months went by before my typing of the manuscript was completed on 23 November. Happily, and quite to my surprise, Rabbit Is Rich won all three of 1981’s major American literary prizes for fiction (as well as a place in the Washington critic Jonathan Yardley’s list of the Ten Worst Books of the Year). An invigorating change of mates, a move to a town that made negligible communal demands, a sense of confronting the world in a fresh relation cleared my head, it may be. The Rabbit novels, coming every ten years, were far from all that I wrote; the novel that precedes Rabbit Is Rich, The Coup, and the seminovel that followed it, Bech Is Back, in retrospect also seem the replete but airy products of a phase when such powers as I can claim were exuberantly ripe.
Ripeness was the inevitable theme of my fourth and concluding entry in this saga. By 1989 my wife and I had moved to Beverly Farms, a bucolic enclave of old summer homes. Most of our neighbors and new acquaintances were elderly; many spent part of their year in Florida. My children were all adult, and three stepsons nearly so; as it happened, my wife and I each had a widowed mother living in solitude. My mother, well into her eighties, was my principal living link with Rabbit’s terrain; countless visits over the years had refreshed my boyhood impressions and reassured me that southeastern Pennsylvania was changing in tune with the rest of the nation. Thirty years before, a reader had asked me if Harry didn’t die at the end of Rabbit, Run, and it did seem possible that death might come early to him, as it often does to ex-athletes, especially those who are overweight and not usefully employed. All men are mortal; my character was a man. But I, too, was a man, and by no means sure how much of me would be functioning in 1999. The more research I did to flesh out my hero’s cardio-vascular problems, the more ominous pains afflicted my own chest. As a child, just beginning to relate my birth year to the actuarial realities, I had wondered if I would live to the year 2000. I still wondered. I wanted Harry to go out with all the style a healthy author could give him, and had a vision of a four-book set, a squared-off tetralogy, a boxed life. I began Rabbit at Rest early in 1989, on 12 January, as if anxious to get started, and finished the first draft on the last day of September, and the typed draft on 20 January 1990. Like Rabbit, Run, it was published in a zero year. And like Rabbit, Run, it is in three parts. The hero of both novels flees south from domestic predicaments. In March of 1959 “his goal is the white sun of the south like a great big pillow in the sky”. He fails to get there and, lost and exasperated on the dark roads of West Virginia, turns back; but his fifty-six-year-old self knows the way. Harry has acquired the expertise and the money and he gets there, and lays his tired head upon that great big pillow. No distinctly American development, no moon shot or gas crunch, offered itself as a dominant metaphor, at this end of Reagan’s decade; instead, the mid-air explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, which occurred before Christmas of 1988, haunts Rabbit acrophobically. And he senses the coming collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire, whose opposition to the free world has shadowed and shaped his entire adult life. Freedom has had its hazards for him, and capitalist enterprise its surfeit, but he was ever the loyal citizen. God he can doubt, but not America. He is the New World’s new man, armored against eventualities in little but his selfhood.
The novel’s two locales have an exceptional geographical density. For the Florida city of Deleon, I did several days of legwork in the vicinity of Fort Myers. To give substance to Harry’s final, solitary drive south, I drove the route myself, beginning at my mother’s farm and scribbling sights, rivers, and radio emissions in a notebook on the seat beside me, just as, more than three decades previous, I turned on my New England radio on the very night, the last night of winter, 1959, and made note of what came. Accident rules these novels more than most, in their attempt to take a useful imprint of the world that secretes in newspapers clues to its puzzle of glory. The fictional name Deleon, along with the murals Rabbit notices in the hospital lobby, constitutes homage to my mother, whose cherished project it had long been to write and publish a novel about the Spanish governor of Puerto Rico and discoverer of Florida, Juan Ponce de León. She enriched, too, the city of Brewer, for a grim interplay developed between my novel, in the year of its writing, and her physical decline. Her several hospitalizations generated medical details that I shamelessly fed into Rabbit’s ordeal; my frequent filial visits exposed me more intensely to Reading and its environs than at any time since the Fifties, and so Rabbit’s home turf, especially as evoked at the beginning of Chapter II, acquired substance and the poignance of something slipping away. I became, as I have written elsewhere, “conscious of how powerfully, inexhaustibly rich real places are, compared with the paper cities we make of them in fiction. Even after a tetralogy, almost everything is still left to say. As I walked and drove the familiar roads and streets, I saw them as if for the first time with more than a child’s eyes and felt myself beginning, at last, to understand the place. But by then it was time to say goodbye.”
My mother died two weeks after I had completed the first draft of Rabbit at Rest. If she pervades its landscape and overall mortal mood, my father, who died in 1972, figures strongly also. Rabbit, in his near-elderly, grandpaternal condition, more and more talked, I could not but notice, like George Caldwell in The Centaur. My two projected novellas had merged: the dodgy rabbit had become the suffering horse; the man of impulse and appetite had aged into humorous stoicism. In trying to picture a
grandfather (my own enactment of that role had just barely begun) I fell back upon memories of my father, whose patient bemusement and air of infinite toleration had enchanted my own children. A number of readers told me how much more lovable
Harry had become. My intention was never to make him – or any character – lovable. He was imagined, at a time when I was much taken with Kierkegaard, as a creature of fear and trembling; but perhaps my college exposure to Dostoevsky was more central. Rabbit is, like the Underground Man, incorrigible; from first to last he bridles at good advice, taking direction only from his personal, also incorrigible God.
His adventure on the Sunfish with Judy rehearses once more the primal trauma of Rabbit, Run, this time successfully, with the baby saved by a self-sacrificing parent. Ripeness brings to fruition many of the tendencies of Rabbit’s earthly transit. His
relations with the opposite sex appear to have two main aspects, the paternal and erotic; they come to a momentarily triumphant climax in his contact with his daughter-in-law. His lifelong involvement with Ronnie Harrison – that repugnant lockerroom exhibitionist whose very name seems a broken mirroring of Rabbit’s – reaches its terminus in a tied golf match. Harry’s shy but determined advance into the bodies of women slowly brings him to a kind of forgiveness of the flesh. Whatever his parental sins, their wages are generously paid him by his son in an act of corporate destruction. Harry’s wary fascination with his black fellow-Americans leads him to explore the black section of Deleon, in its stagnation comfortingly similar to the Depression world of his childhood. So many themes convene in Rabbit at Rest that the hero could be said to sink under the burden of the accumulated past, and to find relief in that “wide tan emptiness under the sun”, the recreation fields next to the abandoned Florida high school.
A problem for the author of sequels is how much of the previous books to carry along. The nuclear family – Harry, Janice, Nelson – and Ronnie Harrison figure in all four installments of Rabbit Angstrom. The older generation, potently present in the first two novels, has dwindled to the spunky figure of Bessie Springer in Rabbit Is Rich; I was charmed to find her so spirited and voluble as she manipulated the purse strings of her little dynasty. Characters dominant in one novel fall away in the next. Ruth vanishes from Rabbit Redux but returns in the next decade. I have restored to Redux an omitted brief reappearance by Jack Eccles, who almost became the coprotagonist of Rabbit’s first outing, and whose own “outing” seemed to deserve a place in the full report. Skeeter, who takes over Redux, dwindles to a news item and a troubling memory; what later novel could hold him? Perhaps he returns in the form of Tiger. That the neo-Babbitt of the third volume contains the witness to the apocalyptic events of the second would strain plausibility did not so many peaceable citizens contain lethal soldiers, so many criminals contain choirboys, so many monogamous women contain promiscuous young things. An adult human being consists of sedimentary layers. We shed more skins than we can count, and are born each day to a merciful forgetfulness. We forget most of our past but embody all of it.
For this fresh printing, apt to be the last I shall oversee, I have tried to smooth away such inconsistencies as have come to my attention. Various automotive glitches – a front engine assigned to a rear-engine make of car, a convertible model that never existed in all of Detroit’s manufacture – have been repaired. The flora and fauna of commercial products and popular culture posed many small spelling problems that should be now resolved. Birthdays: real people have them, but fictional characters usually do without, unless an extended chronicle insists. To my best knowledge Harold C. (a mystery initial) Angstrom was born in February 1933, and Janice Springer sometime in 1936. They were married in March of 1956, and their son Nelson was born the following October, seven months later – on the 22nd, by my calculations. Nelson’s daughter, Judith, was born in January of 1980 and his son, Roy, in November of 1984. Rabbit, Run takes place from 20 March 1959 to 24 June of that year; Rabbit Redux from 16 July 1969 to late October; Rabbit Is Rich from 23 June 1979 to 20 January 1980; and Rabbit at Rest from 28 December 1988 to 22 September 1989. Spring, fall, summer, winter: a life as well as a year has its seasons.
Rabbit is Rich
Rabbit at Rest