Rabbit: raunchy and overrated

The American Book Awards (TABA), last in the yearly round of literary laurels , were announced Apr. 20, and collectors of trivia found something new for the record books.

John Updike -- novelist, poet, and critic - became the first author in history to win all three of America's top prizes for a single work of fiction: TABA, the Pulitzer, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

His prize novel, ''Rabbit is Rich'' (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 467 pp. $13. 95), is third in the trilogy that includes ''Rabbit Run'' (1960) and ''Rabbit Redux'' (1971).

''Rabbit,'' as faithful Updike readers know, is Harry Angstrom, '50s high school basketball star-turned-automobile-dealer, a husband who has weathered marital troubles, a father and Rotarian, and an achiever in middle age of a precarious prosperity -- with glimmerings of something resembling contentment at last. Rabbit is also, some critics argue, symbol of a mature, mellowed-out middle America, a literary figure who illuminates our culture and ourselves.

There can be no doubt that Updike has written an apt chronicle of the darker side of the '70s. You remember: lines at gas stations, Skylab about to fall, cities in a downhill lurch, the shrinking dollar igniting a frenzy of consumerism and panicky buying of gold, the new visibility of homosexuals, the rise of porn films even in small towns, the interminable hostage crisis in Iran, and the feeling that Washington was unable to take care of it or of much else. Updike weaves these and more into his story with hardly a seam showing.

Amid these happenings, he also brings back Rabbit -- a little heavier, a little grayer, proud now to be head man at the Toyota agency; playing golf, swimming, and swapping wives with friends from the club; quarrelling with his grown son; coaxing his wife to shop for a house so they can move out of her mother's place; wondering if the daughter of his old mistress might actually be his daughter; and brooding a lot over mortality, that incessant thought that life, like oil, is running out.

There's drama, suspense, and narrative pull in this, especially since Updike uses his unquestionable gifts - for phrases that refract the light, for realistic dialogue, irony, wit, and detail -- with the skill of a master.

But ultimately, in view of the new laurels, one must ask whether Rabbit and his circle are rich and true enough as literary creations to shed new light on human character or circumstance. My answer is no.

Rabbit was blended using a recipe for hors d'oeuvres, not a main course. The ingredients: two-thirds lust, one-third frustration -- the latter because he's been buckled into life's passenger seat with a son who's ''bad news,'' a wife whose main fault is that her father owned the business, and a mother-in-law who's sharper and usually stronger than he is and who owns the house, to boot. Stir in a scant teaspoon of self-awareness, and you have a man who's not only running scared, as Updike says, but running on empty.

What are we to make of Rabbit's lechery -- his inability to encounter the wives of his friends, a waitress, the girl his son brings home, or his own daughter-in-law without dwelling in detail on how they would perform as his sexual partner? Is this a baring of the soul of our age? Are we to admire Updike's penchant, exercised more freely here than in earlier work, to picture sex in graphic and often repulsive detail? Are we to forget that a masterpiece requires more than power, that it must have beauty as well?

Several years ago it was considered progressive when honest and sensitive treatment of sex began to appear, on occasion, in our serious literature. This subject had been evaded too long. But with today's surfeit of sex in everything from fashions to toothpaste ads, Updike's preoccupation serves no purpose; it fails to tell us anything we weren't already tired of knowing. It only makes Rabbit more shallow and hateful than even an antihero can afford to be.

Do we identify with Rabbit? Feel for him? Loathe him? Even understand him? None of these. We aren't allowed to see far enough into his mind or heart to know him -- or to care. And that is why this, the most honored book of 1981, is sadly disappointing.

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