`Rabbit' Is Still Running on Empty

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.''

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.

Underscoring Rabbit's uneasy feeling that the years are piling up are the carefully cataloged contrasts between his fictional Pennsylvania hometown five decades ago and today - the houses holding the ``ghost of someone he once knew who is now gone,'' his recollections of things ``most of the people in the world know about only from books.''

Despite Harry's nostalgia, Updike never allows the novel to slide into sentimentality or pity for the characters. In fact, the author often brings Rabbit's memories of a more innocent America to a screeching halt with one of Rabbit's crude, anti-erotic descriptions of old or new passion.

On one level, Angstrom's story reads like a national tragedy - a fable in which a person's automatic pursuit of the ``American dream'' fails to yield any happiness. But Rabbit lacks the dimensions of a truly tragic character. His flaws are too mundane, his awareness of life's potential too dim, the stakes too small.

It's almost as if Updike had decided to write about people whose untidy lives he could only speculate on from a lofty distance - people he never really came to know. Had he gotten deeper inside their skins, he might have found the misanthropic view presented so skillfully here incomplete in some important way.

One thing totally absent from Rabbit's world is any inkling of the power of love. His crushing relationships with his wife and son seldom rise above petty one-upmanship. ``There ought to be a law that we change identities and families every ten years or so,'' he observes.

But Rabbit lacks the spunk to make any meaningful change, though not the itch to switch lovers at every opportunity - from a woman named Ruth in the '60s; to Thelma, the wife of a high school teammate, in the '70s and '80s, to even his daughter-in-law.

The routineness of his philandering underlines the truth behind Thelma's sad accusation: ``You've never loved me, Harry. You just loved the fact that I loved you.''

At possible turning points, when a self-absorbed Rabbit could choose to put his failings behind him and reach out to someone - to anyone - he instead feints and dodges.

Is it any wonder, against his drab emotional mindscape - a world where true feeling died long before his heart acted up - that people seem little more than ``disposable meat''; ``earthworms on the hook''; ``thinking animals ... put here in a kind of fix, hungry and scared''?

Stubbing his toe on the ultimate existential questions, Harry contemplates for a moment a cosmology he dismissed long ago: the alien notion that a man could be a ``God-made one-of-a-kind with an immortal soul breathed in. A vehicle of grace.... An apprentice angel. All those things they tried to teach you in Sunday school, or really didn't try very hard to teach you ... .''

But his wan effort at prayer seems hopeless amid the shiny instruments of a pristine operating room. ``No old wispy Biblical God would dare interfere.''

So to Rabbit, he and his fellow travelers on spaceship Earth share the same fate as the doomed passengers aboard Pan Am flight 103 - an image that haunts Harry and the book. It's a vision of an aircraft ripped open ``like a rotten melon'' by a terrorist's bomb ``five miles above Scotland'' - ``all those conscious bodies suddenly with nothing all around them'' falling through a frigid emptiness, with ``everything upside-down and void of mercy and meaning.''

At the end of so unfulfilled a life - vividly realized by Updike's consummate power but anchored to nothing - we can only hope Rabbit will now rest in peace.

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