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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Heroic Tragedy On A Car Lot–John Updike’s ‘Rabbit At Rest’

Rabbit Angstrom, hero of John Updike’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit At Rest is an unsympathetic father, husband and friend concerned only about his failing heart, failed promises, and his unexpectedly unfulfilled life.

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His fame was supposed to have continued past the high school basketball court where he was a star.   Harry had something special – a kind of genius that only comes once every few generation.  He would always be a star.

Despite his working class background and the social and cultural confines of his small Western Pennsylvania town, Rabbit believed that his grace, natural talent, and ability on the court would be the keys to his success off it.

After high school he worked as a linotype operator like his father, never went to college, married young and unexpectedly, and saw that whatever life he had expected was far from what he had.  He resented the marriage he felt he was forced into, resented ‘the dumb mutt’ he was now consigned to live with, and resented his dependence on his father-in-law who hired him as a salesman at the family business. 

His fantasies were not to be. His grace, elegance, and talent on the court were no guarantee of success off it, nor did they insulate him – as he expected – from the dismal life of the town in which he was born. He was destined, it seemed, to be like his father, his father-in-law, and everyone else in Brewer.
Because of his sense of entitlement and a dismissive arrogance which came from it – but also because of that particular limitation that can only come from a small, depressing place – he was frustrated, angry, and irresponsible.  Every relationship he had went bad – with his wife, his son, her parents, and his friends. 

His life disassembles.  His wife leaves him, his son becomes a neurotic burden, and he lives in a group house which burns down in a fatal fire. Although he contritely reconstructs his life and his family, his heart is not in it; and the will, energy, and spirit of his basketball days has morphed into meanness. 

In most ways Rabbit is an unsympathetic, unlikeable character.  He is cruel to his son, impatient and condescending with his wife,  increasingly dissatisfied with his semi-retired life in Florida, and angry at his demotion by his wife in favor of their son who, she felt – despite his destructive drug problem - was the rightful heir to Springer Motors.

Rabbit can do nothing.  He has been trapped by circumstances and his own ignorance to a life of sorry dependency and saddled – again at least partly because of his selfish ignorance – with a disturbed, spoiled son; bratty, unlovable grandchildren; and an ignorant wife.  His condo community in Florida is airless and dull, geriatric, and depressing.  Since Rabbit’s childhood Brewer has, like all rust belt towns of the Northeast, become a run-down city surrounded by malls, chain stores, and fast food.

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Rabbit plays golf, drinks with golf partners, gets fat and bored.  There is nothing in his life that is any good, and nothing in the future to look forward to.

Yet, even as Rabbit sees his life without change and without any possibility of it, he never gives up or gives in.  He likes who he is – a middle-aged man with a mean streak; a man who sees ugliness, stupidity, misfortune, and ignorance in everyone including himself.  He finds his dark view of the world liberating.  He dislikes his son, his wife, and his children; but who insists that he should?  Why is a father obliged to love a destructive, selfish son? What is so special about little children if they are dumb, badly-behaved, and spoiled?

He refuses to accommodate his son’s spiteful, stupid, and self-destructive behavior; his wife’s cheery, dumb optimism; and his lover’s demands for his love.  Jews are the only people he admires for their pluck, cynical humor, and survival.  He likes playing golf with them, hearing their jokes, listening to stories of their successful children, and resignation to old age.  He doesn’t really like them, but he likes the idea of them.

Rabbit is concerned about his heart ever since a recent heart attack; but he refuses to either undergo surgery or reform is habits.  He is fat, out of shape, addicted to snacks and fast food – and proud of it. He refuses to conform to the sanctimonious insistence on healthy lifestyles.  He knows that his obesity and the quantities of salt and fat in his diet will result in another heart attack, but he is obstinate.  The invasion of the catheter and balloon of his angioplasty was bad enough – a violation of his most private places, an aggression, and an insult – and he will not have open-heart surgery.  He could resist the now forbidden salty nuts, crackers, snacks, and olives; but he won’t.

Harry knows he will have another attack and in a way is glad of it. His defiant game of basketball on an inner-city playground with young black men is his act of suicide – a deliberate act to end his life as he began it.

Rabbit’s death/suicide is a tragic and heroic end to a difficult life to which he refused to conform.  He refused to be a good father, a good husband, a good lover, or a good friend; but his defiance and resolute refusal to become like Ma Springer, old Jews, the snowbirds who travel between Florida and the Northeast without conviction or purpose is to be respected.

Rabbit Angstrom never had a chance.  There was no way that he would ever escape his parents, the Springers, Brewer, or the dispiriting death watch condos of Deleon.  Yet he never capitulated, never gave up, and never lost sight of who he was.

Only one person – his lover Thelma –  ignored the way others thought he should be, and loved the arrogant unruliness which was his own special, twisted vitality. 

Thelma knew that Harry did not love her as she did him; but never resented him for it.  She liked him, liked his attention, and liked being with him.  She never asked for another husband, a faithful man, or a responsible, caring lover.  She never criticized him for his indifference, for his misanthropy, and for his anger. She loved him, and it was as simple as that.

Harry liked Thelma, but admitted that it was probably the sex, the intermittent escapes from his wife, and especially the unconditional love.  Rabbit felt no obligation to return the love or the admiration; nor did he feel any responsibility for her.  He was never contrite about the affair even though it was disruptive and selfish; and felt no guilt or regret for her husband who, Harry said, was an ugly prick since high school and would always be.

Rabbit Angstrom is a man with no compassion, remorse, or contrition.  He is self-centered, selfish, and arrogant.  Yet it is hard not to like him.  By traditional measures he is nothing but a car salesman dependent upon his wife; a father with an unlikeable jerk of a son; a grandfather to two whiny, stupid children; a man of some wealth but without the cultural wherewithal to do anything with it; and an overweight man with a bad heart.

Yet he is a Nietzschean Superman who rides above the herd, feels no responsibility for his actions towards them and only dismissive of their predictable trampling.

Harry is a hero because he has rejected anyone who has tried to corral him; anyone who has challenged his absolute rightness and individual validity.  “I am Harry Angstrom”; and that is enough.

Conrad’s Lord Jim spends his entire life atoning for the sin of dereliction of duty and the abandonment of 800 pilgrims on board the Patna as she foundered and began to sink.  His heroics in Patusan are tragic because he will never rid himself of the fantasies which propelled him as a youth, will never really see the world for what it is; and as a result, will die defiantly and without contrition, but honorably. 

Rabbit Angstrom on the other hand is an anti-hero.  He dies not out of honorable motives, nobility, or character; but out of finality.  He understands the nature of the life he must lead, his own obstinate character, and the impossibility of remediation.  Dying is not giving in or giving up, but going out.  A deliberate, proud, and ultimately defiant statement of simply being.

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