A WRITER'S WIT
"Moral indignation is jealousy with a halo."
H. G. Wells
Born September 21, 1866
My Book World
George Smiley is nothing more than a shadow in this novel, a figure whose name is mentioned several times, but he is not the main character, the protagonist—although he is responsible for a lot of behind-the-scenes machinations. Odd. No, the protagonist would be Alec Leamas, a down-and-out British agent. Although this narrative reads much more straightforwardly to me (and I don’t much like this genre), it is much like the previous books in the series. Cold.
And yet Leamas himself is not cold:
“There was a girl standing on the beach throwing bread to the sea gulls. Her back was turned to him. The sea wind played with her long black hair and pulled at her coat, making an arc of her body, like a bow strung toward the sea. He knew then what it was that Liz had given him; the thing that he would have to go back and find if ever he got home to England: it was the caring about little things—the faith in ordinary life; that simplicity that made you break up a bit of bread into a paper bag, walk down to the beach and throw it to the gulls” (108).
And perhaps it is this softness that does him in the end, in the very last scene of the very last chapter—on a soggy, rainy night when he and Liz are shot as they try to escape East Berlin. Oops, spoiler, but the book is fifty years old after all . . . .
This book, of the first three of Updike’s tetralogy, is said to be the most popular of the four. I wonder. Yes, Rabbit matures a bit now that he’s fifty-six. His wife Janice, who was such a little mouse in the first book, especially blossoms into a forty-three-year-old woman who knows her mind and isn’t afraid to tell Harry where to get off. Their son Nelson returns, after three years at Kent State, to live with them. Instead of remaining at school to get his degree, he insists on taking a sales position at the Toyota dealership where Rabbit has worked since his father-in-law gave him a job years ago. Rabbit, the basketball hero, has allowed himself to get fat and sluggish. His fantasies of women are tempered with the idea that they wouldn’t probably find him very attractive.
Updike develops several strands of the Angstrom saga. Rabbit continues, throughout the book, to return to the home where his former lover Ruth lives. Rabbit believes that he has a daughter there, that Ruth’s eldest is his. At the end of the book, he is told that such is not the case. We sense that she’s lying, but Updike does nothing to confirm it; we may only feel that way because Rabbit doesn’t believe her. He thinks the child’s photo looks like him and not Ruth’s husband. He may just want a daughter, after experiencing the death of baby Rebecca so many years prior in the first novel.
In a second strand, Nelson quarrels on and off with his father, who now really can’t stand to be around his opinionated son, the one who won’t finish college. When a woman named Melanie shows up and wants to stay with Nelson in his room at Janice’s mother’s house, where they all live, things begin to liven up. Then when a second woman, a pregnant Pru, Nelson’s lover from Kent State, shows up, Nelson hangs around and even marries Pru. Melanie leaves to have an affair with one of Rabbit’s colleagues.
Updike, in his usual exploration of contemporary culture (1979), takes three couples, including Harry and Janice, to a wild week in the Caribbean. They all swap spouses one night. In a tender scene, Harry is paired with a woman who’s been smitten with his fat self for quite some time, a woman who has been diagnosed with lupus. Instead of being put off, he succumbs to the charms of the plump woman who allows him many liberties Janice won’t even entertain. The week is shortened, when Janice’s mother calls to say their son Nelson has disappeared.
In the final twenty pages, Nelson calls from Kent State to say he’s going to finish his degree, while living with Melanie who’d come to see him, although he promises someday to return to his wife Pru and the baby. Harry and Janice, now comfortably rich, buy their first home in an area that some perceive as Nob Hill. Harry now covets the small den as being his, where he might have a few books. But Janice, unwilling to populate the large living room with furniture, overtakes the den, to watch TV.
In this book, at the two-thirds mark, as in the first two novels, we think a third child will die as a pregnant Pru accidentally falls down a set of stairs. Oh, no, Updike, not again, we think, but it is a trick. In sort of a deus ex machina move (Updike must realize he just can’t kill off another young person to create the climax), Pru and the baby both turn out to be fine—even if such an accident would normally hurt the mother and kill the baby.
In another nine years, Updike would publish Rabbit at Rest, Harry Angstrom, Rabbit, in his sixties, now living in Florida. Luckily, I don’t have to wait that long to read it.