Rabbit at Rest

“Enough,” concludes the novel, and Rabbit seems to have made his final run. The book begins with mortal premonitions as Harry waits at a Florida airport, and it ends in the intensive-care ward where the fifty-six-year-old lies after a massive heart attack. Leaving management of the family Toyota franchise to son Nelson, Harry and wife Janice winter in a Florida condo. Rabbit’s rest is disturbed, however, by the revelation that Nelson is a cocaine addict who has bilked their business of more than $200,000. Harry returns to run Springer Motors while Nelson undergoes rehabilitation at a Philadelphia clinic. Harry revisits dying lover Thelma and ignites an explosive relationship with daughter-in-law Pru. When pressures become oppressive, Harry again runs off.

Throughout the tetralogy, Updike uses Angstrom as a measure of social transformations during each of four decades. RABBIT AT REST, in which Harry dresses as Uncle Sam for a Fourth of July parade, records a world in which AIDS and drug abuse are rampant and young people, much more than 230-pound Harry, are obsessed with diet. Women are more independent, and Janice joins a women’s group and studies real estate. The Angstroms’ practice of TV channel-surfing and the montage of radio stations that Harry monitors as he cruises highways make the novel a fin-de-siecle time capsule of popular music, advertising, and current events.

“There is just no end to it, no end of information,” muses Harry over news of Tiananmen Square, First Dog Millie, elections in Poland, and Mike Schmidt’s retirement. But there is an end to Updike’s Rabbit habit. After Harry’s coronary surgery, sister Mim phones from Las Vegas. Recalling their dead parents, Mim declares: “I suppose their hearts failed in the end but so does everybody’s, because that’s what life is, a strain on the heart.” A valediction to an era and a character as distinctive and representative as Babbitt, RABBIT AT REST strains the heart without failure.

Sources for Further Study

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 7, 1990, p.3.

The New Criterion. IX, October, 1990, p.30.

New Statesman and Society. III, October 26, 1990, p.33.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVII, October 25, 1990, p.11.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, September 30, 1990, p.1.

The New Yorker. LXVI, October 22, 1990, p.143.

Newsweek. CXV, October 1, 1990, p.66.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVII, August 10, 1990, p.433.

Time. CXXXVI, October 15, 1990, p.84.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 26, 1990, p.1145.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, September 30, 1990, p.1.

Rabbit at Rest

“You might say it’s a depressed book about a depressed man, written by a depressed man,” said John Updike cheerfully to the American Booksellers Association convention in Las Vegas three months before the publication of Rabbit at Rest. The first draft of his book, which Updike described as “a kind of dying for me,” was completed ten days before the death of his mother, his last personal link to the corner of Pennsylvania that Rabbit inhabits. Rabbit at Rest is the ultimate installment in the tetralogy that began with Rabbit Run (1960) and continued with Rabbit Redux (1971) and Rabbit Is Rich (1981). “Enough,” concludes the latest volume, and Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, one of the most widely followed characters in contemporary American fiction, seems to have had his final run.

Rabbit at Rest is the culmination of Updike’s thirty-year attempt to record the life and times of the high school basketball star of Brewer, Pennsylvania. The book begins with premonitions of death as Harry awaits the arrival of his son Nelson and his family at the Southwest Florida Regional Airport, and it ends in the intensive-care ward, where the fifty-six-year-old has been hospitalized following a massive heart attack. As in the previous Rabbit books, Updike employs a flexible third-person technique that allows him to represent the observations, memories, expectations, and fantasies of his characters, primarily Harry Angstrom.

The author echoes the opening of Rabbit Run with a late scene in Rabbit at Rest in which his aging, overweight former athlete challenges youthful hotshots at a playground hoop. Harry “has time left only for truth,” and, despite its 512 pages, making it the longest book in the Rabbit series, the novel compels attention with the sense of fundamental truths about American society during the waning months of the 1980’s, years that, as much as the 1930’s of W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” appear “a low dishonest decade.” Written in the present tense that Updike pioneered in the first volume, Rabbit at Rest engages the reader with a sense of immediacy and urgency.

Leaving management of the family Toyota franchise to Nelson, Harry and his wife, Janice, spend half the year in a condominium in Deleon, Florida. Rabbit’s rest is disturbed, however, by revelation that his son is a cocaine addict who has bilked their business of more than $200,000 in order to support his habit. Despite recent angioplasty following a boating mishap with granddaughter Judy, Harry returns to run Springer Motors, the dealership created by Janice’s late father, while Nelson undergoes rehabilitation at a clinic in Philadelphia. In an episode verging on ethnic caricature (“Toyota agency must be a prace of disciprine, a prace of order,” declares Mr. Shimada), a Japanese executive from the corporation visits Harry to inform him that Toyota has decided to withdraw authorization for Springer Motors to sell its automobiles. Harry revisits his lover Thelma Harrison, now smelling of urine and dying of lupus, and ignites an explosive relationship with his daughter-in-law Pru. When pressures become too oppressive, he again takes to the road.

Throughout the tetralogy, Updike has used Harry as a unit of measurement for calculating transformations in the United States during each of four decades. Harry was bred to be a member of the species Homo mediocris americanus, a “middle American” who, despite coming into some money at the death of his father-in- law, is demographically, intellectually, and spiritually unremarkable. He is a hero for a shabby time that lacks authentic heroes. One of the challenges that Updike does not always master is to avoid the role of ventriloquist, of projecting into his often uncouth character the more sophisticated insights of his author. Yet the novel has also been faulted for the banality of its observations, a charge that is itself an indirect tribute to Updike’s success in capturing the mental and emotional life of l’ homme moyen sensuel. In his nonfiction, Updike has expressed intellectually unfashionable sentiments of patriotism, but never in the vulgar terms in which Harry conceives his love of country—“all in all this is the happiest fucking country the world has ever seen.” The novel’s melancholy, its rueful sense of social entropy, belies such occasional...

(The entire section is 1814 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

Questions about the character of Harry Angstrom are likely to dominate any discussion of Rabbit at Rest. Critics have also debated...

(The entire section is 289 words.)

Techniques / Literary Precedents

Updike's fiction is well-known for its realistic style that renders every nuance and texture of daily life. The use of this technique in...

(The entire section is 318 words.)

Adaptations

Updike's response to the film adaptation of Rabbit, Run is included in the analysis of Rabbit Redux (see separate entry).

(The entire section is 20 words.)

Bibliography

Sources for Further Study

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 7, 1990, p.3.

The New Criterion. IX, October, 1990, p.30.

New Statesman and Society. III, October 26, 1990, p.33.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVII, October 25, 1990, p.11.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, September 30, 1990, p.1.

The New Yorker. LXVI, October 22, 1990, p.143.

Newsweek. CXV, October 1, 1990, p.66.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVII,...

(The entire section is 75 words.)