Rabbit, Stop

      John Updike obviously had sexual hangups, but he created an immortal figure in American literature. (Mark Twain said a writer is immortal if his books last for 30 years.) Rabbit Angstrom was so much like all of us: a liar, a fake, a failure.
      Failure has been an underestimated boon to America. I’ve seen this in the places I’ve lived for 15 years: Vermont, and the Murrieta-Temecula Valley in Southern California.
      Vermont is a wonderful place to live because the state has virtually no economy: dairy farms, tourism, a few insurance companies and the old IBM headquarters. Throw in the plumbing and heating guys and that’s about it. The state’s annual budget never hit $1 billion until four years ago. Plenty of states have annual deficits bigger than that. California’s budget deficit this year would keep Vermont going for 20 years.
      The perennially tottering economy and the wicked winters have been the chief preservers of Vermont’s natural beauty, and preserved it as a great place to live. Two generations ago, John Kenneth Galbraith wrote an essay in which he showed how small businesses slowly going bankrupt – after opening with money earned out of state – have maintained and preserved the quiet glories of Vermont.
      Vermont’s photographic negative, Southern California, was ruined by success. My old home, the Murrieta Valley, just north of the San Diego County line, was virtually abandoned until the 1960s. Murrieta and Temecula each had populations of around 260 in those days. The valley was full of horse farms where the animals rested between the seasons at Santa Anita and Del Mar. The valley was still beautiful because an old railroad line had washed out twice at the Temecula Gorge back in the 1800s. So people took the coast road, and the valley slumbered for an extra century.
      Then Interstate 15 was completed in the 1980s, connecting San Diego with Riverside, San Bernardino and Los Angeles. The valley filled up with asphalt, smog and Republicans. More than a quarter of a million people live there now – a 25,000% increase in a generation. The surrounding mountains are still there, but most of the valley’s natural beauty is gone forever – in one generation.
      When F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives, I believe he meant that success ruins Americans. That’s hard to deny. Look at today’s financial catastrophe: it was not created by hard times, but by profligacy and stupidity during a generation of fantastic economic success. We threw it away. We ruined ourselves, we ruined our nation in the eyes of the world, and ruined it in reality, and we did it all as easily and as quickly as Rabbit Angstrom swishing a free throw.
      The finest touch in Updike’s quartet of Rabbit books – the only subtle touch I’ve seen in anything Updike wrote – was that he mentioned just about once in each book that Rabbit had been a high school basketball star. He never provided a flashback, never showed us Rabbit in his glory; he just mentioned it, then Rabbit plodded on. The high point of Rabbit’s life came when he was 16 years old. It was all downhill from there.
      That’s pathetic.
      (That was the only subtle thing I’ve seen Updike do in several thousand pages. He was a fine descriptive writer, but descriptions are not subtle – they’re descriptions. And when it came to women and sex, the man was weird: reptilian and creepy.)
      Updike appears to have been a fine human being – a quality far too rare in American writers, or American artists of any sort. But like Americans who succeeded and achieved notoriety in virtually any field in the past century, Updike is overrated today – and he doesn’t mind my saying that. Very few artists in any field create an immortal character, and some of those characters were created in wretched books. Oblomov comes to mind, or any of the characters created by Henry James.
      But Updike’s Rabbit books are fine books, and they manage to be so despite their disappointing, treacherous, lying American hero. His very name is perfect. Rabbit: weak, fast, cowardly and concupiscent. Angstrom: one ten-millionth of a millimeter, a unit so small it’s used to measure atoms and light.
      By any measure, Rabbit was a failure. His success as a car dealer was none of his own doing; he was swept up in a wave of prosperity created by others. Then his son snorted it all up. And Rabbit got him back, by having sex with his son’s wife. What a country.
      Even Rabbit’s only real talent, his athletic skill, the only thing that ever brought him joy, was none of his own doing. It was a gift of nature, gone before he knew what he’d had. That vanished gift lingers through the long story: no longer even a dream, gone like the buffalo.

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