Thursday, October 1, 2015

Something About Harry

The Sixties had taught us the high moral value of copulation, and we were slow to give up on an activity so simultaneously pleasurable and healthy.

I read John Updike for the first time when I was in college, so years after "Rabbit Run," one of Times' 100 all-time greatest novels, had come out. The sequel, "Rabbit Redux," made enough of a splash that even  years after its debut, it was still being held up and discussed to the point that I realized I needed to understand what the fuss was about.

Young Karen set out to discover what that was. I bought a used paperback copy (original price 60 cents) of "Rabbit, Run" - which I still have although its pages are discolored and well-worn- and dove in head first.

The music on the radio soothing now, lyrical and unadvertised, and, coming first from Harrisburg and then from Philadelphia, makes a beam he infallibly flies in on.

The book was appealing to me on so many levels. The main character, Harry aka Rabbit, was 26 - not all that much older than I was at the time - and frustrated with the constraints of middle class life. I was still a college student, but already absolutely certain I wanted a life very different than the safe and pleasant one my parents lived.

But it was more than that. Updike wrote about a suburban underbelly I'd been mostly unaware of and his characters slipped in and out of each other's beds, bodies and hearts with a casualness not readily seen in the families I knew in the white bread community I'd inhabited growing up.

And, wow, just wow, the beauty of his prose was eye-opening. His descriptions were deeply rich, his vocabulary extensive (such a pleasure to need to look up words in the dictionary), his language so polished, startling at the time because of how much he wrote about sex and relationships. Even the fact that he wrote in the present tense, shifting from first to third person seemed fresh and modern.

An unabashed Updike fan was born.

After absorbing "Rabbit, Run," I moved on to "Rabbit Redux," this time buying it new ($1.50 and also still on the shelf) but not expecting it to pick up so much later in Rabbit's life. It was so full of '60s references, as if Updike was trying to make sense of the decade that had changed everything for the adults who'd lived through it.

The reason Skeeter annoys and frightens you is he's opaque, you don't know a thing about his history, I don't mean his personal history so much as the history of his race, how he got here.

Over the years since, I'd read other Updike books, but until I picked up a late-career compilation  "Licks of Love," at the Kill Devil Hills library giveaway this summer,it had easily been ten years since I'd read anything of his.

The dozen short stories in it may have been my first Updike stories, a shame because I was delighting in the language and subject matter from the first page of the lead story, "The Women Who Got Away."

With Updike, it was so often about the women.

We hadn't learned yet to take the emotion out of sex. Looking back, the numbers don't add up to what an average college student now manages in four years.

The real surprise was that the book contains an 182-page novella, "Rabbit Remembered," written in 2000 and the final installment in the Rabbit series, albeit one where Rabbit is now dead, although hardly forgotten.

In fact, he's still the elephant in the room for every character's actions, thoughts and interactions.

Written when he was 68, the man's talent for combining words still reads as a master class in intellectual writing about living a middle class American life, as it had for 40 years, just with the addition of updated hot buttons: e-mail, Y2K and Clinton haters. Updike never missed an opportunity to comment on the cultural zeitgeist.

Her voice is dry and crackled, parched by cigarettes like the desert from the sun, but nice, with family warmth rushing into its old veins at what she takes to be an emergency.

I'm amazed; as I begin reading the story, the names, the characters, the locales and the references slowly return, still tucked back there somewhere in the recesses of my reading memory. Oh, yea, Janice, the wife and oh, god, annoying Ronnie, the nemesis. Even Brewer, the town, rings a bell.

Happiness for her  is already rising in him, like water trembling upward.

Some books you hate to close, knowing you'll miss the author's voice that's been keeping you company for the recent rainy week. Rabbit, you're not just remembered, you're part of this reader.


  1. Reading your blog this morning over coffe and this one brought a bit of water to my eyes "like water trembling up" I was reminded of my own past experiences with these books. Oh those salad days☺️

    Thanks for that.

  2. Shaped who we are as readers, eh?