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Character Assassination : John Updike Kills Off 'Rabbit' After Decades of Scrutinizing Society's Flaws. Now What ?

November 04, 1990|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Rabbit is dead, but John Updike swears it was a mercy killing. After all, if a famous literary character wants to load up on junk food, laugh off a heart attack and then die heavily in debt, who can stop him?

"I don't like killing off characters, because I'm not very good at saying goodby," Updike says with a chuckle. "But Rabbit had to go, as much as I loved him. His time was up. He was tired of everything, getting weary of sex and living in general."

A shrewd coroner might also list writer fatigue as the cause of death. After 30 years of chronicling the life and times of Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom, a high school basketball star-turned-American Everyman, Updike admits he simply ran out of gas. It was time to quit.

His decision will come as a shock to millions of readers, who have followed Harry's ups and downs through "Rabbit, Run" in 1960, "Rabbit Redux" in 1971 and "Rabbit Is Rich" in 1981. With the completion of "Rabbit at Rest," (Knopf, $21.95) Updike says he looks forward to taking a rest, then breaking new literary ground.

The 58-year-old author, whom John Cheever called "the most brilliant and versatile writer of his generation," has produced an astonishing 39 books, including short stories, criticism, novels, plays, children's books, memoirs and poems. He has won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, and is acknowledged to be one of America's most multitalented authors.

But he is perhaps best known for the Rabbit novels. Published at 10-year intervals, they have been hailed by some critics as Updike's darkest, most ambitious work. Through the eyes of his WASP antihero and other characters, Updike has captured the changing American scene, beginning with the 1950s and rolling through the greed-ridden 1980s.

Some readers thought the books would go on forever, but Updike says that was never in the cards: "These novels really couldn't continue beyond this last one, because there was the danger of them turning into a comic strip that never ends. I was trying to write an American life, and so I guess you can say that I hustled Harry into a premature senility."

A lanky, soft-spoken man who flashes an elfin smile when he speaks, Updike doesn't look the part of a literary eminence. He is warm and engagingly unpretentious in a hotel interview, wearing simple gray slacks and a plain white shirt. Fresh from the "Today Show," with makeup still on, the New England author seems more interested in talking about the Boston Red Sox and their latest swan dive than his most recent novel.

"I guess the Sox are a lot like Harry Angstrom," he says with a little shrug. "You know they're going to stumble eventually. But you're also amazed that they hold on as long as they do."

In "Rabbit at Rest," the 225-pound Angstrom finally expires after clogging his arteries with gobs of junk food. Brushing aside a doctor's warning, he eats bowls full of salty corn chips and nearly has a fatal heart attack. Back on his feet, he keeps eating fried foods and winds up comatose in an intensive care unit, clinging to the last moments of his life.

Along the way, Rabbit bickers with his wife, broods about death, makes a hash of his relationship with a drug-addicted son and has an appalling sexual encounter with his daughter-in-law. The book charts Angstrom's final journeys, hopscotching between Harry's sterile life in a Florida retirement colony and the drab Pennsylvania town where he was born.

As in previous books, Rabbit turns and runs when life's problems get too pressing, hence his nickname. He is a difficult character to like, an ordinary man writ large against the backdrop of a changing society.

Asked to describe the final installment of his series, Updike calls it "a depressed book about a depressed man, written by a depressed man."

But "Rabbit at Rest" is more than psychology. Running 512 pages, it is a scathing, almost nihilistic take on the United States today. In Updike's view, the nation is addicted to junk food, television and foreign debt--a land overcome with spiritual fatigue as the Cold War ends.

He also paints a dark picture of the American middle class in decline. Harry and other white members of the Silent Majority may have once felt confident about the future, he says, but they are now in danger of being muscled off the political stage.

At one point, Rabbit wonders what's the point of even being an American, now that Soviets are no longer the enemy and the Japanese are buying up everything in sight. His life in a Florida condominium community is filled with boring rounds of golf and shopping trips to a sun-bleached mall. When relatives visit, he is hard-pressed to fill up the time. As his chest pains increase, he lapses into a prolonged funk.

"There's a kind of emptiness to Harry's life, and that got to me," Updike says. "And it's true that I've loaded onto him the responsibility of reflecting the times. There's a heaviness and a sluggishness about the book, a sense of weariness throughout."

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