"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, September 7, 2018

The Futility Of Retrieving Old Loves–The Tragic Story Of John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom

Outside the sealed hospital windows, in the slowly thickening dusk, sap is rising, and the air even in here feels languid with pollen.  Involuntarily Harry’s eyes close again. “No”, he says, “that’s OK. Don’t tell her anything. I doubt if she’d remember anything.”  He is suddenly tired, too tired for Ruth.  Even if the girl is his daughter, it’s an old story, going on and on, like a radio nobody’s listening to (Rabbit at Rest)

Image result for images rabbit at rest updike

Harry Angstrom has just met the young woman who might be his daughter, the child of a woman he knew years ago but never forgotten.  Their affair had been brief – a solace, a comfortable place, and a refuge from the deaths and unhappiness of a family he never wanted, resented, and corrupted.  He never regretted his life, as difficult and inescapable as it was; refused to feel guilty, remorseful, or self-pitying; and went on with a life that he knew was suffocating and infuriating.  He knew that had one or two things turned out differently he might have made his way out of the poor Pennsylvania mill town where he grew up, might have never had to repeat his father’s miserable working life, and never – caught between Midwestern sobriety and religion and ambition – had to marry or live a life ordered and controlled by others of such bad taste and no inspiration.

Image result for images western pennsylvania depressed town

Yet he never forgot Ruth, who might or might not be the mother of his daughter, and who might still be the same savior she had been then, someone to give him some hope that life had at least some glimmer of reason and possibility and not the depressing, short, and ugly life he had been given and worse accepted.  He sees her again but has forgotten her resentment and her anger at Harry’s facile engagement – the husband who will go back to his wife.  Harry knew nothing of her own difficult marriage and poor life, and assumed that she would be as willing as he to restart their friendship.  She had become in light of his impending death, far more than she ever was and nothing she could ever really be. 

The story is familiar.  There is nothing new about middle-aged men who look up former lovers.  After divorce, that is the first place they go and the first place of disappointment.  Old lovers have gotten fat, married, and as irrevocably married to disappointing men and mother of disappointing children and as dispirited as they had been.  Better never to look.

Harry, however, does look; but despite his damaged, increasingly hopeless life, he never gives in.  He never hopes for any resolve or anything better, but is still defiantly alive.  There is something valuable there, even inviolable – despite the absurdity of a 250 lb. soggy body; a mess of fouled arteries and failing organs; and the few signs of beauty, charm, or appeal wherever he looks.  He has become mean-spirited, angry, and bullying; but he is uncontrite.  His son’s addiction, his wife’s cluelessness, his spoiled grandchildren, the depressing life of a Florida condo and an old Rust Belt town deserve to be yelled at.  None of this has anything to do with him – they are circumstantial and peripheral.  His lack of compassion and refusal to understand and compromise are not products of his deformity but theirs.  And in fact he is far more intelligent, far more aware, and far more courageous than anyone around him – family, friends, and co-workers that he did not choose but were chosen for him.  There can be no American dream if the cards are dealt before you learn the game.

Image result for images florida condos

Despite his angry misanthropy, his refusal to accept the hand he was dealt, and his inability to move past the events that have forced him unwillingly but as a direct result of his actions, he is still a sympathetic character.  We forgive his brief moments of out-of-character idealism because he has had so little of it.  Nothing has offered either promise or reward since his days as a high-school basketball star.  He was as lured by the American Dream as anyone, and as let down by an unforgiving, immobile life as everyone else.

His moments of self-pity and idealism do not last; and Harry, after seeing Ruth, reverts to his old self; but realizes and accepts his coming death as a welcome end.  There is no room for his kind of humanity, his absolute defiance and insistence on integrity and individual expression.  He was irrepressible in his youth (Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux) – dangerously so, unwilling to see how his ambition and selfish needs could and did hurt others.  Deaths were on his hands.  Yet he neither shied away from his responsibility for them, although he was only indirectly liable, nor let them wear down his spirit and his conviction of worth and value.

He dies as he began – on a basketball court, as arrogantly defiant of the odds as he ever was, refusing to live out his life meticulously and to see the last juices of his absolute will dribble out unnoticed by anyone.  Harry is an unlikely hero, but a hero nonetheless.  His suicide – for that is inescapably what it is – is not an act of desperation, but defiance.  A refusal to be neutered, laid down, and forgotten as a man.  Even sleeping with his son’s wife - for which he was never apologetic and which was as in character as his final game in the slums of Deleon – was not enough of an anodyne for his hopelessness.

Harry would never have even used the word.  Life for him was never hopeless, but simply a given.  He had the right to see something beyond it, an almost spiritual, faithless, but accurate perception of the way things are and will always be.  Hope was meaningless.  Acceptance was worse.  Only defiance in the name of living mattered.

The men who look for lost loves are no Harrys.  They have none of his will nor his absolute refusal to give in.  Unanchored dreams, a brief respite from the wife, memories which have been reconfigured and transformed into something that might have been but probably never was.  Time and emotional penury distort all memory.

The difference between Harry and men looking for an impossible past is that he never had any regrets.  He did not regret that he deceived Ruth or never loved Thelma – the only woman who truly, inexplicably, but resolutely loved him until her death – nor did he rethink his relationships with his wife.  It could never have been otherwise, as inexorable in its trajectory as any.  Had Ruth turned out to still love him; and had her daughter really been his, then perhaps the death of his own daughter and the drunken hands of his wife might be forgiven; and his own inexplicable but necessary long marriage to her finally put to rest; but the reality was not unexpected.  Life had never been promising, so why should it be now?

Harry was insufferable to his son and to his grandchildren – selfish, impatient, and intolerant – and it is easy, especially in today’s climate of a hoped-for loving fatherhood, to criticize him for it.  Yet we cannot blame him because their own selfish and spoiled natures were not his fault, but simply products of a life which held more selfishness than generosity.   It is not easy to love Harry, but we can.

Rabbit at Rest is a moving, unforgettable story of a common man who was less common than anyone around him.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.