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

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Marriage, ‘Rabbit At Rest’ And The Unsung Heroism Of The Defiant Male Everyman

Rabbit Angstrom, the main  character in John Updike’s tetralogy (Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, and Rabbit At Rest) is Every Man – hardworking, a belief in American expectations, sexual ambition, love of women, suspicious of them, but inevitably bound to them, resentful of societal norms and imposed values yet faithful to them, dismissive of religion but hopelessly spiritual.

He has married Janice out of duty and responsibility, realized that such an enforced marriage has had its benefits – bourgeois wealth and position in his small Pennsylvania town, secure employment, some authority, and the advantages of a comfortable income – but is unhappy, restive, and impatient.  Life which began with adulation (an early career as a star athlete) but which which saw all signs of uniqueness or minor celebrity disappear quickly in the poverty of the Pennsylvania mining town in which he grew up, has, by the time of the fourth novel (Rabbit At Rest) become barely supportable.  He is angry with himself for having ‘done the right thing’, married pregnant Janice, lived off the largesse of her wealthy father, eased so complaisantly into an automotive sales job, put up with his wife’s drunken, careless, murder of their firstborn, and retired from an expectant life to a deeply depressing one.

Rabbit (Harry) Angstrom is a misanthrope.  As he sees it – strip malls, Florida snowbirds, used cars, jelly beans, theme parks, mothers-in-law and the tedium of Rust Belt Pennsylvania and Florida monotony – life is no better than death; and while he complaisantly accepts his fate, he refuses to go quietly.  He refuses to accept responsibility for his drug-addicted, weak, anti-social son; for his own infidelities and out-of-wedlock paternity, his wife’s alcoholic nonsense, or the inevitable course of the demise of a working class, ambitious, talented, insightful man. 

In a censorious age bound and determined to enforce rectitude, right behavior, and moral purpose, Harry Angstrom is an outlier, an offender, a retrograde male chauvinistic boor.  Yet to anyone trapped in a marriage arranged by convention, moderated by feminist claims to equality, and bound and determined to be good, engaged parents, Rabbit is a hero.  He flees his wife, his hopelessly ignorant son, and the philosophically sedentary life of ‘the lot’. He chooses to die as he came into the world – alone, with no excuses, no explanations, and no justification.

Rabbit engineers his own death because he knows after his heart attack that his fat, sedentary, indulgent life is untenable.  The one-on-one game he plays in the slums of Deleon is the best possible end – going out as he came in – an athlete, a man to be noticed.  His life may have been ordinary, predictable, and entirely expected; but his death was nothing of the sort.  It was his and his alone, and in this choice, this conscious repudiation of all that had defined and controlled him, he was a hero.

Rabbit is Every Man because of this defiance, this angry refusal to be feminized and socialized – to refuse be a  good husband, a good father, a good citizen.  ‘We all die alone’, he knew and knew well, perhaps the only moment when we must face our creation, our end, and the meaning of our lives without interpretation, without mediation.  Many face death in panic, fearful, unprepared, unwilling to let go of a life which, in the best of circumstances was only incidental but which is considered eternal.

Image result for Images Ivan Ilyich Tolstoy

Rabbit is hero because he was born with little, brought up with less, and settled for the best that a working class, high-school-educated boy in Appalachian America could hope for.  His story is not about the American Dream or fulfilling promise, talent, and ambition.  It is about facing it, never settling for it, and moving beyond it.

The older one gets – Harry is middle-aged but feeling older – the more one reflects on what one has done and not done.  Not so much accomplishments or acclaim, but fulfillment.  Have we had the life we wanted or expected? Have we been the confident, assured determined, and aggressive males were brought up to be? Have we made the best of opportunity and chance?

Harry felt that his super-stardom on the high school basketball court would be his meal ticket, the one thing that distinguished him from his classmates, from others.  His sense of beauty, perfection, elegance, grace, and purity would somehow have to last beyond the hardwood.  For Harry, or for anyone of early talent, the comedown is abrupt and surprising.  How could this be?

Why Harry Angstrom is a hero is because he neither lived in the past nor whined about his fall from grace.  Victory over the inescapable, push-and-shove , ugly, under-the-basket, sharp-elbowed present was the only game in town.  Most of his teammates made the elision from stadium to nowhere job without complaint – complaisant, diffident, easily accepting this fall from possibility as a matter of course. Not Harry.

Everyone else puts up with Harry’s world without complaint and with no resistance, but not him.  He is honest about how distasteful his ‘mutt’ of a wife is, how dumb, how clueless, and how ignorantly blissful she is about her simple, unquestioned life.  He should have married Thelma who loved him, never put up with him but felt at home with his misanthropy, his determined out from a cohort of seals flip-flapping their way to and from the water’s edge without any sense of why or wherefore, with only a few Jews to guide him.

Harry does not expect any love or compassion from anyone – wife, children, lovers, or friends.  No one ever knows you, and one dies alone; so why rely on the solace and comfort of those who are on the same singular, spare, and unknowable paths?  Better to wise up to this aloneness business, to prepare, like Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, to a solitary death.

There are few men who don’t look at their aging wives and wonder who they are and why they ever married them. As one ages, past lovers become more palpable, not less.  “If only” is the operative byword of older men for whom life, if anything, is a saga of missed opportunities; and whose memories of the bungled ones keep them up at night.

Sanity and a good night sleep should prevail.  “She has been a good mother, patient with my indiscretions, tolerant of my wanderings, solid, never spend-thrifty, parsimonious, organized, and dutiful to her family", one might say to stay the dreams; but no sage auto-advice suffices.

Yet most men are not like Rabbit Angstrom who face facts – a pasty, clueless wife; bratty grandchildren; and a loser of a son – accept them, and move on with neither guilt nor remorse.  They are beaten lifeless, and can look forward to nothing more than what has been.

Suicide? For that was exactly what Rabbit was doing when he played one-on-one in the ‘hood – not reliving the past but choosing the past as a way out.  A statement.  A conclusive period to his life.

There are few men who even consider making it to the basketball court, let alone playing in a winner-take-all game of one-on-one.  They are cowards, tied to their wives or a slave to their parents living or dead; altar boys, Eagle Scouts, and good citizens.  For the few, the Harry Angstroms, there is no looking back, no excuses, and no second thoughts.   Harry dies on the basketball court with no thought of his wife, his son, his parents, or his friends.  We all die alone, said Tolstoy, and the sooner we realize this the better.  Harry Angstrom did.

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