John Updike, let us hope, died more peacefully than his most famous character, Rabbit Angstrom. Rabbit died about 19 years ago, when Rabbit at Rest was published. It has disturbed me ever since, quite often.
I am no expert on Updike, just a fan, especially of his four novels about Rabbit (Rabbit, Run, 1960; Rabbit Redux, 1971; Rabbit Is Rich, 1981; and Rabbit At Rest). And I'm proud to be able to write a little public thank you note. The desire to avoid Rabbit's kind of death drove me to much productive pondering over the years.
Together, the Rabbit books make for one of the "great American novels." Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom was a high school basketball star who brushed against all the discombobulations of his times but never stopped shooting; he pined for his individual glory but wanted to belong; he wanted his wife and other women, too; he was a "beautiful brainless guy" who was also a brooding narcissist, capable of occasional, clear self-knowledge; he had muddled bouts with religious conscience and striving, but could pass no wisdom or guidance on to his son.
The first book began with a 26-year-old Rabbit, depressed in his business suit, joining a pickup basketball game with a bunch of teenagers in his Pennsylvania hometown.
The last book ends with Rabbit — overweight, heart trouble, wife in Pennsylvania, son fresh out of rehab — challenging a black teen he calls Tiger to a game of one-on-one at a playground on the wrong side of the tracks in the Florida town where he has retired.
The clouds have gathered in an agitated silvery arena around the blinding sun, a blue bullring. Rabbit accidentally in one twist of upward effort stares straight into the sun and can't for a minute brush away its blinking red moon of an afterimage. His chest feels full, his head dizzy; his pulse rustles in his ears, the soaked space between his shoulder blades holds a knifelike pain.
But the aging bull keeps at it. He drills an ancient two-hand set shot, rebounds Tiger's next miss and drives to the basket.
Up he goes, way up toward the torn clouds. His torso is ripped by a terrific pain, elbow to elbow. He bursts from within; he feels something immense persistently fumble at him, and falls unconscious to the dirt. Tiger catches the ball on its fall through the basket and feels a body bump against him as if in purposeful foul. Then he sees the big old white man, looking choked and kind of sleepy in the face, collapse soundlessly, like a rag doll being dropped. Tiger stands amazed above the fallen body — the plaid Bermuda shorts, the brand-new walking Nikes, the blue golf shirt with a logo of intertwined V's.
In an essay recorded for the NPR series "This I Believe" in 2005, Updike said:
Cosmically, I seem to be of two minds. The power of materialist science to explain everything — from the behavior of the galaxies to that of molecules, atoms and their sub-microscopic components — seems to be inarguable and the principal glory of the modern mind. On the other hand, the reality of subjective sensations, desires and — may we even say — illusions, composes the basic substance of our existence, and religion alone, in its many forms, attempts to address, organize and placate these.
Both of Updike's two minds were at work describing Rabbit's last hours in the Florida hospital. Rabbit's doctor gives the materialist version to Rabbit's wife, Janice. " 'Ma'am, the whole left ventricle is shot,' he says. 'My guess is there was complete restenosis since this April's procedure up north."
But Rabbit's last moments are "the reality of subjective sensations, desires and — may we even say — illusions." His son, Nelson, is at his bed at the end.
From his expression and the pitch of his voice, the boy is shouting into a fierce wind blowing from his father's direction. "Don't die, Dad, don't!" he cries, then sits back with that question still on his face, and his dark wet eyes shining like stars of a sort. Harry shouldn't leave the question hanging like that, the boy depends on him.
"Well, Nelson," he says, "all I can tell you is, it isn't so bad." Rabbit thinks he should maybe say more, the kid looks wildly expectant, but enough. Maybe. Enough.
I have re-read that ending many times since I became a father. As much as I like and feel for Rabbit, it's an ending I don't want for myself. I am grateful to the author for showing me that.