Opinion

In John Updike's America, are we still running from responsibility?

Like his main character, we're caught between duty and desire.

By

While no death should be fitting, the passing of acclaimed writer John Updike last week seemed sadly scripted. The man who chronicled suburban America's constant dilemma between duty and desire left us just as we're coming to grips with the consequences of running from responsibility. 

Today, as the country tries to cope with vanishing jobs and declining confidence, some are dusting off the work of 20th-century economist John Maynard Keynes

We'd be better served by reading Mr. Updike's 1960 novel, "Rabbit, Run." 

A trillion-dollar stimulus may or may not dig us out of our dire straits. But this much is certain: Only if we face up to our obsession with instant gratification and the temptation to flee when times get tough can we begin to heal our national soul. 

If a plane safely crash-landing into the Hudson River can serve as a metaphor to something finally going right in America, then reading Updike is a sorry reminder of how good it used to be. The post-World War II boom – the setting for much of his literature – delivered fine economic times. It spawned suburbs with cul-de-sacs and fashioned peachy communities.

But fruit rots, and Updike exposed it to its core – the sort of mind-set that led to the excess and dependence on credit that now jeopardizes middle-class America. 

In Updike's day, we coveted our neighbor's wife. More recently, we've coveted our neighbor's granite countertops. Both seek to glamorize suburban life; both can end in ruin.

The timeless and universal appeal of Updike's central character, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, was that he had a breaking point. And one day he decided to run. He left his wife, and his kid, and his awful job selling used cars in his father-in-law's lot. Not exactly the greatest job for someone who used to be one of the greatest high school basketball stars in the dying town of Mount Judge. Hey, he didn't ask for this life, but somehow he got it, mostly of his own doing. So instead of manning up, he ditches it, finding happiness in getting away, however temporarily, regardless of the tragic consequences.

In the telling, Updike shines a light on the harsh implications of acting on impulse.

Who among us hasn't thought of just picking up and booking? Who among us hasn't fallen into the "coulda, woulda, and shoulda" syndrome and moments of self-pity? Who among us hasn't dwelled on the glory of the past and tried to reclaim it by riding its coattails during tough times?

There's a reason why Bruce Springsteen sang "Glory Days" as his final song at the Super Bowl last weekend. We want them back. There's a reason why late-night commercials hawk exercise equipment with lines such as, "Look at me: I'm 50 years old and I'm in a rock band!" There are reasons why ESPN constantly runs highlights of the greatest games. They're perfection frozen in time.

But in the end, you can't press the rewind button in the passage of life, and no matter how much you try to run, there's no escaping yourself. That's why we, much like Rabbit, tend to look to quick fixes that involve escape, although on smaller, less-tragic scales. 

We self-medicate, and we hit the treadmill at the gym or the pews at church. When unhappy with our marriage, we might look around for that mistress across town, as Rabbit did. And if we don't, because our conscience gets the better of us, then we stay put in a numbing relationship, reporting to a job we don't like in order to make the mortgage payment, and be there for the children. We are condemned to carry out our duties while cloaked in quiet resentment, something Rabbit underwent in all the sequels. Dare we admit that we sometimes look to death as the ultimate escape?

America was founded on three inalienable rights. One of them was the pursuit of happiness. More than two centuries later, we're still pursuing it. How do we get there? And how do we resist the temptation to drop everything and cruise when our backs are against the wall? These are the profound questions that Updike was raising in his creation of Rabbit – and which still plague us today.

There are two schools of thought on the subject: fate or free will. Either life has a design for you, or you have a design for your life. Rabbit painstakingly learns this, quite literally, in a classic scene with a gas station attendant. In the middle of the night, in somewhat of a panic, Rabbit asks a series of questions on where he is and how can he get to Point A or Point B, not really letting on that he wants to hit the sandy beaches of South Carolina. Because he's on the run, he feels criminal.

"Son, where do you want to go?"

"Huh? I don't know."

"The only way to get somewhere, you know, is to figure out where you're going before you get there."

In recent years, America has seemed to be on the run, unsure where to go. Last month, a new president took office declaring a "new era of responsibility." Rabbit made his decision. Now we have to make ours. With Updike gone, it's up to us to see how the story pans out. 

Tom Ragan is a freelance writer and former daily newspaper reporter.

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