Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Head Fake

When I first met Harry Angstrom I got the impression that this simple, small-town jock was perhaps mentally disabled in some way: ADD, dyslexia, OCD perhaps. At 26, he’s stuck in high-school basketball star mentality so full of pubescent sex-addled conceit, bewilderment, anger and resentment that it’s initially painful to watch him stumble around in his existential hell, which even on the physical level is foul, dirty, threatening and sinister:
“Rabbit...runs. Up the alley. Past the deserted ice plant with its rotting wooden skids on the fallen loading porch. Ashcans., garage doors, fences of chicken-wire caging crisscrossing stalks of dead flowers.”(P. 7)
Their apartment and his wife Janice are equally apt accessories to the gloom:
“Just yesterday, it seemed to him, she stopped being pretty. With the addition of two short wrinkles at the corners, her mouth has become greedy; and her hair has thinned, so he keeps thinking of her skull under it.” (P. 8)
 A greedy mouth in a skull, the TV cord a likely noose - it's as if Harry is being stalked by death itself, one of many disturbances that get him running. As he runs south, Updike paints a portrait of the American culture, as it is reflected over the car radio, which is as equally unlikeable as the characters he's introduced so far. If there’s anything remotely likeable in the opening paragraphs of Rabbit, Run, (aside from Updike’s legendary prose) it is the adult Mouseketeer and his lesson on individuality. 
“God wants some of us to become scientists, some of us to become artists, some of us to become firemen and doctors and trapeze artists. And He gives to each of us the special talents to become these things, provided we work to develop them. We must work, boys and girls. So, Know Thyself. Learn to understand your talents, and then work to develop them. That’s the way to be happy.” (p. 12)
Indeed, the narrator positions the lead Mouseketeer’s short speech as a possible “big theme” for the novel. However it is quickly apparent that Rabbit’s interpretation of the lesson – that he can’t self-actuate while playing husband and father so he had better hit the road and find himself – is a harbinger of harebrained decisions to come.
In this way, Updike sets the readers up like bowling pins. Everything leading up to Rabbit and Ruth in the sack feels like a test that asks the question “how long are you willing to put up with a protagonist who appears to be slightly touched by mental illness, along with a bunch of losers who aren’t even funny?” Ironically it doesn’t necessarily help that the prose is so inventive in its crystalline simplicity, for it only serves to make our distaste for the protagonist and his empty existence in Mt. Judge, Pennsylvania that much more unbearable.
In the hands of a mere mortal, such a set up to a novel might lose a great many readers who simply see no reason to waste their time finding out if this Rabbit character is capable of doing the right thing. In Updike’s hands, the issue becomes fascinatingly complex, for not only are we compelled to find out if Rabbit is capable of doing the right thing, we are forced to address the larger underlying issue: just what IS the right thing?
However, before we can start examining and evaluating the various value judgments of the characters that surround our perplexed simpleton, we’ve got to find somebody to like; somebody to root for, because it’s not at all apparent at the outset that we’ll ever have good reason to root for Rabbit. Ultimately, the way Updike plays it, we find ourselves rooting for “the right thing”, which, according to the supporting characters, perhaps with the exception of Rabbit’s mother, is to put the family unit back together again. And since Rabbit is the only one who can put the family unit back together again, we find ourselves, against our own better judgment, rooting for him. Once Updike has thoroughly laid this snare, he very subtly goes about making Rabbit likeable, or at least engages Rabbit in some likeable behavior. It’s not at all as if Rabbit starts doing the “right” or “socially acceptable” thing, rather just by being his somewhat goofy, emptyheaded self, much like Forrest Gump or Chance, The Gardener, the right things start to happen around Rabbit.
 This all starts with Jack Eccles (The ECCLESiastical assigned to soothe the ANGSTrom) and the golf game, where Rabbit suddenly realizes how effortless, like it used to be on the basketball court, it can be to do something right (in this case hit a 260 yard tee-shot). Updike, as the recognized Poet Laureate of Golf, expertly played golf analogies throughout his career, and his description of Rabbit’s golf “epiphany” also describes what his protagonist’s heart, or more accurately his body, yearns for but cannot articulate:
“Very simply he brings the clubhead around his shoulder into it. The sound has a hollowness, a singleness he hasn’t heard before. His arms force his head up and his ball is hung way out, lunarly pale against the beautiful black blue of storm clouds, his grandfather’s color stretched dense across the north. It recedes along a line straight as a ruler-edge. Stricken; sphere, star, speck. It hesitates, and Rabbit thinks it will die, but he’s fooled, for the ball makes its hesitation the ground of a final leap: with a kind of visible sob takes a last bit of space before vanishing in falling. 'That’s it!' he cries and, turning to Eccles with a grin of aggrandizement, repeats, 'That’s it.' (p. 116)
The “it”, for Rabbit, is power and control, or as in golf, “long and straight”. Even though Updike works hard at making the “it” seem like a sort of mystical, spiritual experience, for Harry Angstrom it comes down to the power to control his environment, and, inversely, utilize his controlled physical power to sidestep trouble. The ball making its “hesitation the ground of a final leap”, or turning on the afterburners, is what Rabbit wishes he could do with his own life: to be launched far beyond the entrapments of marriage and family into a world of his own making, where he answer to no one. Updike recognizes with this analogy that there is something of that desire in all of us, and thus begins to seek if not sympathy the beginnings of empathy or at least a modicum of understanding for this beautiful blockhead.
Ultimately it is the work in Mrs. Smith’s rhododendron garden that gets us thinking that perhaps the only effort Rabbit needs to make to be valuable and likeable is to BE there.  For most of the characters, Rabbit has this ineffable comforting presence, as if he might exude some sort of power and control himself, that seems to allow people in his company to be themselves, without fear of judgment or invalidation. Old Mrs. Smith is simply thankful to have a strong arm to hang onto, and what appears to be an open ear to her rants. Rabbit may not be able to string five sentences together in conversation, but he is a good listener. After Mrs. Smith rips on her deceased neighbor Alma Foster who believes Smith's rhodies in bloom must be what heaven is like, Rabbit makes the observation that the difference in Alma Foster's heaven and Mrs. Smith's heaven is as simple as the difference between a rhodie garden and a field of alfalfa, which is what Mrs. Smith has always wanted on her property.
"Well, maybe what looks like rhododendrons to her will look like alfalfa to you."
"Heh! Eh-HA! Exactly! Exactly! You know, Mr. Angstrom, it's such a pleasure -" She stops them in the walk and caresses his forearm awkwardly; in the sunshine the fine tan landscape of her face tips up toward his, and in her gaze, beneath the fumbling girlish flirtatiousness and the watery wander, there glitters an old acutenness, so that Rabbit uneasily standing there feels a stab of the penetrating force that drove Mr. Smith out to the brainless flowers. "You and I, we think alike. Don't we? Now don't we?" (p. 122)
We get the impression from the paragraphs describing Rabbit's work in Mrs. Smith's garden that he is far more content around plants than he is around people. Still, it's not surprising that the flowers remind him of the various types of women he would like to make:
"...when the hemispheres of [rhododendron] blossom appear in crowds they remind him of nothing so much as the hats worn by cheap girls to church on Easter. Harry has often wanted to have a girl like that, a little Catholic from a shabby house, dressed in flashy bargain clothes." (p. 118)
It's difficult not to jump up and complain "damn, there he goes again. Is that all he ever thinks about?" Still, what started out as one of many Fatal Flaws - the proverbial one track mind – The Rev. Eccles wants us to accept as a symptom of a much larger existential disease, as both he and Angstrom recognize but neither can articulate. Updike elevates what is really an adolescent inability to accept responsibility, along with an addiction to the power and control of a high scorer, to a universally recognized spiritual quest to find the ineffable "it". The main problem is that this “it” is not nearly so visceral and physically pleasurable as the feeling you get ripping a 260-yard drive straight down the middle. Still, how can we go on disliking this testosterone-addled country bumpkin, who is kind to children and old ladies, gentle and nurturing in the garden, doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, doesn't gamble, and generally doesn't act on his sexual impulses (save for a baseball player's pat on Judy Eccles ass) can we go on hating a guy that's on a spiritual quest, even if we feel like we’ve been tricked into believing it?
Updike is a master of creating believable characters, and though he at first gives us a protagonist that is easy to dislike, he quickly follows up with a "hey, not so fast! What about this characteristic, what about that characteristic"? And so the characters in Rabbit, Run become as real as the folks next door, each of them a true amalgam of good and bad, right and wrong. In so doing he makes the issue of character likeability entirely moot, because, like all the people in our lives, there are things we like about them and things we don't. As Rabbit observes when he gets Ruth to make him brunch after their first night together: “Now I’ve got her”, Updike can feel the same sense of conquest when we start to liking, and even trusting, Harry Angstrom: now he’s got us. All of the events leading up the death of the baby Becky, and even for awhile after, indicate that Rabbit is not the same guy that ran out on his wife and kid at the beginning of the story. So, when he fails us and goes running back to Ruth after the funeral, and then just keeps on running, it’s hard to believe that he could have possibly understood Tothero’s words at the funeral:
“Right and wrong… aren’t dropped from the sky. We. We make them. Against misery. Invariably, Harry, invariably…misery follows their disobedience.” (p. 240) Misery follows the disobedience of “right”. Does Rabbit want misery? No, but he thinks is he runs fast enough he can continue to do the wrong things with impunity. Or does he have the smarts to even think of that? Probably not.
In the final analysis, what really makes me cry is not the accidental death of baby Becky, or the dime-a-dozen set of circumstances leading up to it. It's that after all that he's been through; Harry Angstrom has not learned one single goddamned thing. His idiotic insensitivity at the funeral, spoken like a schoolboy with a slingshot standing over a dead bird -
"Don't look at me...I didn't kill her." (p. 253)
- takes me right back to how I felt shortly after my first meeting with Rabbit: this guy is not playing with a full deck. It is just so painfully evident. He may not be emotionally crippled; on the contrary he feels too much; it is how he acts on those feelings - like a 12-year old - that in the end gives me pause about Rabbit, Run. Is it a gimmick to get me to read the next book so I can find out if this poor chump gets his shit together? Now I feel like I’ve been tricked, as if on the basketball court I had just fallen for a head fake and missed a steal. I’ve been rooting for the right thing to happen and believing that Harry Angstrom isn’t slightly mentally retarded, that he’s discovered that when the world offers forgiveness and welcomes you in with an open hand, best thing to do is take it. But, like a junkie – and Rabbit is sort of a junkie: an endorphin junkie – his cravings get the better of him.
Unfortunately, real life is far too full of idiots like Harry Angstrom to want to go looking for them during off hours, even when they're magnificently wrought in solid gold prose by one of my top ten favorite authors. Who else but Updike, the golfer, could get me scratching my head after 300 pages, feeling like I had just been strategically led down the primrose path only to fall of a cliff in the end. Yes, life is full of likeable fools like Rabbit whose maturity may never catch up to their age, and whose “sin is a conglomerate of flight, cruelty, obscenity, and conceit…”, (p. 248) and who can’t “look outside [their] own pretty skin once in awhile.” But perhaps there’s hope for them. Damn! Maybe me too! I may just have to read the next book and find out!