In John Updike's America, are we still running from responsibility?
Like his main character, we're caught between duty and desire.
Santa Cruz, Calif.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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?