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`Rabbit' Is Still Running on Empty

By Bruce ManuelBruce Manuel is the Monitor's Arts page editor. / November 29, 1990



RABBIT AT REST By John Updike. New York: Alfred A. Knopf 512 pp., $21.95 HARRY (RABBIT) ANGSTROM slam-dunked his way into contemporary fiction as the confused 26-year-old ex-jock taking time out from a shaky marriage in John Updike's 1960 novel ``Rabbit, Run.''

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Readers even then could sense that the fortunes of the fair-haired basketball star at the center of this talented newcomer's second novel had peaked at the high school free-throw line - that Rabbit's life would never again radiate the same warm glow of promise and approval.

That was confirmed when Updike revisited Angstrom, by then a journeyman Linotype man, back with his wife but experiencing new domestic upheaval in ``Rabbit Redux'' (1971).

Then the Pulitzer-winning ``Rabbit Is Rich'' (1981) chronicled Harry rebounding from a dead-end career by taking charge at his late father-in-law's Toyota dealership and settling into a comfortable, complacent lifestyle in the inflationary '70s.

Now, with ``Rabbit at Rest,'' billed as the last of the series, Angstrom returns as an overweight, semiretired man of leisure who seems older than his 55 years and whose obsession with sexual gratification has been dampened slightly by another preoccupation - his own mortality.

The story opens with Rabbit driving his wife, Janice, from their Florida condo to an airport to meet their son, Nelson, and his family. But the jet carrying the younger Angstroms conjures up a strangely dark image for Harry - ``his own death, shaped vaguely like an airplane.''

If the book's title weren't there to radiate its chilly foreboding, that sentence and many like it would set the stage for the final page, where Rabbit, in a hospital coronary unit after two heart attacks and an angioplasty, described in deliberately repugnant detail, tells himself, ``enough. Maybe. Enough.''

In between, the book is skillfully plotted to catch readers up in one little mystery after another: Why has Nelson gotten so edgy? Where does he disappear to? Is he involved in drug-dealing or embezzling, as his father comes to suspect? Will a crisis or two strengthen this aching family's fragile ties? Will involvement in a women's self-help group transform Janice? Will she make it as a working girl?

The backdrop for the tale is Updike's atmospheric prose-portrait of the '80s, sometimes artificially intrusive but always keenly observed: the ``anesthesia'' under Reagan with ``everything falling apart, airplanes, bridges ... making money out of nothing''; the terror among some whites of driving through a black neighborhood; ``television's tireless energy''; the dying out of local accents; an AIDS victim's remark that his parents' marriage showed him ``something to avoid,'' the ``Technicolor glop McDonald's puts on everything - pure chemicals.''

The symbolic links between Harry and his country become a bit strained when Rabbit dresses up as Uncle Sam for an Independence Day parade, but Updike is effective and subtle in tying up the loose ends of Harry's life with seamless cameo appearances by the key characters from the earlier books.

The invariably black humor comes at the expense of Florida as a waiting room for the mortuary, doctors with a discomfiting bedside manner, and a Japanese auto executive who is nonplussed by America's relaxed attitude about business.