BOOK (1990)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 May, 2010, 12:00am

Rabbit at Rest
by John Updike

Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom is not just resting, he's frazzled. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning fourth part of the quartet about the fictional former high-school basketball star, Rabbit vegetates in Florida at the end of the 1980s - a time plagued by debt, Aids and terrorism.

He must cope with chest pains and a libido undercut by the fear of 'nothing under you but black space'. The adulterer - forensically depicted by master satirist John Updike - channel-surfs and grazes uncontrollably. He is hooked on trans fat-rich snacks that sharpen the strain on his heart. According to new research, his ill - compulsive eating - is swayed by the same mechanism behind drug addiction.

Rabbit would nod because his drug addict son, Nelson, takes after him. Despite Nelson's cocaine compulsion, he has been handed the keys to the family business - a Pennsylvania Toyota dealership - by Rabbit's put-upon spouse.

Incapable of restraint, Rabbit beds Nelson's wife while the leech is away at rehab. Despite the repose implied by the vintage novel's title, Rabbit at Rest offers scant comfort.

'Rabbit at Rest is certainly the most brooding, the most demanding, the most concentrated of John Updike's longer novels,' rival novelist Joyce Carol Oates wrote in The New York Times. 'This is the saddest and deepest of the Rabbit novels, an aching portrait of America at the end of the Reagan era,' the Library Journal wrote. 'If this novel is in some respects an elegy to Rabbit's bewildered existence, it is also a poignant, humorous, instructive guidebook to the aborted American dream,' Publishers Weekly said.

The 'guidebook' is rich with bewitching description. Take the episode in which the leading man with a weakness for macadamia nuts and corn chips visits an airport where the 'whole state babies you', but desolation prevails. 'Plucked strings, no vocals, music that's used to being ignored, a kind of carpet in the air, to cover up a silence that might remind you of death,' Updike wrote.

Rabbit reflects on the airport's eerie likeness to bits of architecture: air conditioning ducts, crypts, even space-warp tunnels in sci-fi movies. His addled mind hops from his wife to mortality again before embarking on a prejudiced digression.

A symbol of the 'grey wave' explosion of elderly people, he knows he has outstayed his welcome. 'You fill a slot for a time and then move out; that's the decent thing to do: make room,' Rabbit says in one of the novel's most quoted assertions.

After his heart gives out following an impromptu basketball game, thanks to the power of Updike's vision, his spirit limps on - you may still hear the din of him chomping junk food. Complicated, compulsive reading.