the kaleidoscopically gifted writer whose quartet of Rabbit novels highlighted
a body of fiction, verse, essays and criticism so vast, protean and lyrical as
to place him in the first rank of American authors, died on Tuesday in Danvers,
His best-known protagonist, Harry Rabbit Angstrom, first appears
as a former high-school basketball star trapped in a loveless marriage and a
sales job he hates.
Through the four novels whose titles bear his
nickname "Rabbit, Run," "Rabbit Redux," "Rabbit Is Rich" and "Rabbit at
Rest" the author traces the funny, restless and questing life of this
middle-American against the background of the last half-centurys major
events." - Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
"John Updike shows how vapid American
culture really is."- AA
Hearing this speech has made the sliding
sickness in her so steep that Janice wonders if she can keep her grip on the
"Don't come over, Mother," she begs. "Please."
have a bite of lunch and be over in twenty minutes. You go to bed."
Janice replaces the receiver and looks around her with
Panicked with the double idea of not disturbing Nelson and
of concealing Harry's absence, she runs to the crib and nightmarishly finds it
smeared with orange mess.
"Damn you, damn you," she moans to Rebecca,
and lifts the little filthy thing out and wonders where to carry her. She takes
her to the armchair and biting her lips unpins the diaper.
little shit," she murmurs, feeling that the sound of her voice is holding off
the other person who is gathering in the room.
She takes the soaked
daubed diaper to the bathroom and drops it in the toilet and dropping to her
knees fumbles the bathtub plug into its hole.
She notices the glass of
watery whisky she left on the top of the toilet and takes a long stale swallow
and then puzzles how
to get it off her hands.
All the while Rebecca screams as if she has
mind enough to know
Janice takes the glass with her and spills it on the rug
with her knee while she strips the baby of its nightie and sweater.
head aches with all this jarring up and down.
Her knees sting from so
gives up and to her surprise sits flatly on a kitchen
Her body doesn't move for a second but when it does she
sees her hands with the little lines of dirt on her fingernails put the whisky
bottle into a lower cabinet with some old shirts.
She shuts the door,
it bangs but doesn't catch, and on the edge of linoleum beside the sink the
cork cap of the whisky bottle stares at her like a little top hat.
puts it in the garbage bag.
Now the kitchen is clean enough.
the living-room Rebecca is lying naked in the fuzzy armchair with her belly
puffing out sideways to yell and her lumpy curved legs clenched and red.
Janice's other baby was a boy and it still seems unnatural to her,
between the girl's legs, those
two little buns of fat
instead of a boy's plump
When the doctor had
Nelson circumcised Harry hadn't wanted him to as he hadn't been and thought it
was unnatural, she had laughed at him
he was so mad.
wavery gray line of the water is almost up to the lip of the tub.
wishes she could have the bath.
Brimful of composure she returns to the
She tips too much trying to dig the tiny rubbery thing out
of the chair so drops to her knees and scoops Rebecca into her arms and carries
her into the bathroom held sideways against her breasts.
She is proud
to be carrying this to completion; at least the baby will be clean when Mother
She drops gently to her knees by the big calm tub and does not
expect her sleeves to be soaked.
The water wraps around her forearms
like two large hands; under her eyes the pink baby sinks down like a gray
With a sob of protest she grapples for the child but the water
pushes up at her hands, her bathrobe tends to float, and the slippery thing
squirms in the sudden opacity.
She has a hold, feels a heartbeat on her
thumb, and then loses it, and the skin of the water leaps with pale refracted
Then she has Becky squeezed in her hands and it is all right.
She lifts the living thing into air and hugs it against her sopping chest.
Water pours off them onto the
The little weightless body flops against her neck.
A contorted memory of how they give
pumps Janice's cold wet arms in frantic rhythmic hugs.
Though her wild
heart bathes the universe in red, no spark kindles in the space between her
arms; for all of her pouring prayers she doesn't feel the faintest tremor of an
answer in the darkness against her.
Her sense of the third person
within widens enormously, and she knows, knows, while knocks sound at the door,
that the worst thing that
has ever happened to any woman in the world has happened to
Jill goes on gently, "Americans are exploiters.
The first things they
exploit are themselves."
Lifting her face, her eyes fixed and her
freckles a constellation, "You've never given yourself a
chance to think, except on self-exploitative techniques,
printing. You carry
an old God with you, and
an angry old
patriotism. And now an old
He takes breath to protest, but her hand begs him to let her
accept these things as sacred not out of love or faith but fear;
your thought is frozen
because the first moment when your instincts failed,
you raced to the conclusion
that everything is nothing, that zero is
the real answer. As we see in
He at last can speak.
"There was violence in Vietnam before
we ever heard of the fucking place.
You can see by just the way I'm
sitting here listening to this crap I'm a pacifist basically."
points at Skeeter. "He's
the violent son of a bitch."
"But you see," Jill says, her voice
lulling and nagging, with just a teasing ragged hem showing of the voice she
uses in bed, "the reason Skeeter annoys and frightens you is you don't know a
thing about his Afro-American
Skeeter's face is shedding its shell of scorn and
writhing as if to cry.
He has taken his glasses off.
reaching toward Jill for the marijuana cigarette,
keeping his eyes on Rabbit's face.
Rabbit is frozen,
his mind racing. Nelson. Put
him to bed. Seeing too much.
His own face as he listens to Skeeter
feels weak, shapeless, slipping.
The beer tastes bad, of malt.
Skeeter wants to cry, to yell.
"So what did the South do? They said
baboon and lynched and whipped and cheated the
black man of what pennies he had and thanked their white Jesus they didn't
have to feed him anymore.
And what did the North do? It copped out. It
pulled out. It had put on all that muscle for the war and now it was wading
into the biggest happiest muck of greed and graft and
pollution and slum-building and Indian-killing this poor old whore of a planet
has ever been saddled with?
The Southern assholes got together with the
Northern assholes and said, Let's us do a deal. And that was the
Revolution of 1876. Far as the black man goes, that's the
'76 that hurt, the one a hundred years before was just a bunch of English gents
Rabbit is Rich
Janice has on underpants beneath her
nightie but no bra and in the bright light her nipples show inside the cloth
with their own pink color, darker, more toward wine.
She is saying, "It's a hard age.
They seem to have so many
choices and yet they don't. They've
been taught by television all their lives to want this and that and yet when
they get to be twenty they find money isn't so easy to come by after all.
They don't have the opportunities even we had."
In bed, perhaps it's
the rain that sexes him up, he insists they make love, though at first Janice
"I would have taken a bath," she says, but
she smells great, deep jungle
smell, of precious rotting mulch going down and down beneath the ferns.
When he won't stop, crazy to lose his face in this essence, the cool
stem fury of it takes hold of her and combatively she comes, thrusting her hips
up to grind her clitoris against his face and then letting him finish inside
her beneath him.
Lying spent and adrift he listens again to the rain's
sound, which now and then quickens to a metallic rhythm on the window glass,
quicker than the throbbing in the
iron gutter, where ropes of
"This is horrible," Nelson announces from the
sofa. "What'd we drag this poor guy in here for anyway? Pru and I didn't ask to
be married in a church, I don't believe any of that stuff."
don't?" Harry is shocked, hurt.
"Nobody knows for sure," Pru points out in a
Nelson asks her furiously, "How many dead people have you
Even as a child, Harry remembers, Nelson's face would get white
around the gills when he was angry.
He would get
nervous stomach aches, and clutch at the edge of the banister on his way
upstairs to get his books.
They would send him off to school anyway.
Harry still had his job at Verity.
Janice was working part-time
at the lot.
They had no babysitter.
School was the
Her voice presses into his
ear. "I want to do something for you so you won't forget me, something you've
never had with anybody else. I suppose other women have sucked you off?"
He shakes his head yes, which tugs the flesh of her breast.
"How many have you fucked up
He lets her nipple slip from his mouth. "None. Never."
"You and Janice?"
"Oh God no. It never occurred to us."
"Harry. You're not fooling me?"
How dear that was, her old-fashioned "fooling."
From talking to
all those third-graders.
I thought only queers ... Do you
"I am a Catholic and Ronnie is a Jew. So we do it a lot of
the time. He loves it."
"It has its charms."
"Doesn't it hurt? I
mean, he's big."
"At first. You use Vaseline. I'll get ours."
"Thelma, wait. Am I up to this?"
She laughs a syllable. "You're up."
She slides away
into the bathroom and while she is gone he stays enormous.
and anoints him thoroughly, with an icy expert
Thelma lies down beside him with her back turned, curls forward as if
to be shot from a cannon,
and reaches behind to guide him.
It seems it won't go,
but suddenly it does.
The medicinal odor of displaced Vaseline reaches
The grip is tight at the base but beyond, where a cunt is
all velvety suction and caress, there is no sensation:
a void, a pure black box, a casket of
He is in that void, past her tight ring of
He asks, "May I come?"
Her voice sounds faint and
Her spine and shoulder blades
It takes only a few thrusts, while he rubs her scalp with
one hand and clamps her hip steady.
"O.K.," he says.
"Thank you. That I won't forget."
embarrassed. What does it do for you?"
"Makes me feel full of you.
Makes me feel fucked up the ass. By
lovely Harry Angstrom."
"Thelma," he admits, "I can't believe you're so
fond of me.
Rabbit at Rest
Everything falling apart, aeroplanes,
bridges, eight years
under Reagan of nobody minding the store, making money out of nothing,
running up debt,
trusting in god.
"You weren't quite yourself today,"
Bernie admits. " You got
girlfriend trouble or something?"
he once read a history of
Talmudwood about their womanizing.
Groucho Marx, the Warner
Brothers, they went crazy out there with the
sunshine and swimming pools
and all the Midwestern shiksas
who'd do anything to be movie stars.
Janice would get back at
ten-thirty at the earliest.
There was plenty of time to see this through.
He relaxes back into his pillows.
Good he had that nap this afternoon.
"Is that how you see it?" he asks. "He was a shit to you?"
"Absolutely. Terrible. Out all night doing God knows what, then this
snivelling and begging for
forgiveness afterwards. I hate that worse than the chasing; my father was a
boozer and a chaser, but then he wouldn't whine to Mom about it, he'd at least
let her do the whining. This immature dependence of Nelson's was totally
outside my experience."
Her cigarette tip glows.
concussion of thunder steps closer.
Pru's presence here feels hot in Harry's mind, she is awkwardly big and
all sharp angles.
Her talk seems angular and tough, the gritty Akron
toughness overlaid with a dismissive vocabulary learned from professional
He doesn't like hearing his son called immature.
knew him for some time out at Kent," he points out, almost
"Harry, I didn't," she says, and the cigarette tip loops
through an agitated arc.
"I thought he'd grow, I never dreamed how
enmeshed he was, with you two. He's still trying to work out what you two did
to him, as if you were the only parents in the world who didn't keep wiping
their kid's ass until he was thirty.
A thing that goes fast with coke
is shame; these women that are hooked will do anything. I say to him,
You're not going to give me AIDS from one of
your coke whores. So he goes out again. It's a vicious circle. It's been
going on for years."
"How many years, would you say?"
shrugs her shoulders, Ma's old bed shakes.
"More than you'd think. That
crowd around Slim was always
doing pot and uppers - gays don't give a
damn, they have all this money only for themselves. Maybe two years ago
Nelson became a big enough user on his own to need to steal. At first he just
stole from us, money that should have gone into the house and stuff, and then
he started stealing from you - the company. I hope you send him to jail."
She has been cupping her hand beneath the cigarette, to catch the ash,
and now she looks around for an ashhtray and sees none and finally flips the
butt toward the window, where it sparks against the screen and sizzles out on
the wet sill.
Her voice is hoarsening and finding a certain swing,
a welling up.
"I'm scared to fuck him, I'm scared to be legally associated with him.
I've wasted my life. My husband hates me and I hate him and we don't even have
any money to split up! I'm scared - so scared. And my kids are scared, too.
I'm trash and they're trash
and they know it."
"Hey, hey," he has to say. "Come on.
even as he says it he knows this is an old-fashioned idea he would have trouble
to lift us up and make us into angels we're all trash.
is shaking the bed so badly that in his delicate postop state he feels queasy.
To quiet her big body he reaches out and pulls her toward him.
As if expecting his touch, she huddles tightly,
though a blanket and a sheet are
between them, and continues sobbing in a bitter, lower register, her breath hot
on his chest, where a pajama button has come undone. His chest. They want to
carve it up.
"At least you're healthy," he tells her. "Me, all they
need to do is nail down the coffin lid. I can't run, I can't fuck,
I can't eat anything I like, I know
damn well they're going to talk me into a bypass. You're scared? You're still
young. You've got lots of cards still. Think of how scared I feel."
his arms Pru says in a voice gone calm again, "People have bypass operations
all the time."
"Yeah, easy for you to say. Like me telling you people
are married to shits all the time. Or you telling me people have their
kids turn out to be
dope-addict embezzlers all the time."
A small laugh. A flash of
light outside and, after some seconds, thunder. Both listen.
"Does Janice say you can't fuck?"
"We don't talk about it. We just
don't do it much lately. There's been too much else going on."
"What did your doctor
"I forget. My cardiologist's about Nelson's age, we were all
too shy to go into it."
Pru sniffs and says, "I hate my
She seems to him to be
unnaturally still, like a deer in oncoming headlights.
He lets the hand
of the arm around her broad back move up across the bumps of the quilted robe
and enter the silken cave at the nape of her neck, to toy with the warm hair
"I know the feeling,"
aware through the
length of his body of a cottony sleepiness waiting to claim.
him, "You were one of the things I liked about Nelson. Maybe I thought Nelson
would grow into somebody like you."
"Maybe he did. You don't get to see
what a bastard I can be."
"I can imagine," she says. "But people
He goes on, "I see a lot of myself in the kid."
The nape of her neck tingles under his fingers, the soft hairs rising
to his electricity.
''I'm glad you're letting your hair grow long," he
"It gets too long."
Her hand has come to rest on his bare
chest, where the button is unbuttoned.
Not waiting too long to think
about it, he with his free hand lifts hers from his chest and places it lower,
where an erection has surprisingly sprouted from his half-shaved groin.
His gesture has the pre-sexual quality of one child sharing with
another an interesting discovery - a
stone that moves, or a remarkably thick-bodied butterfly.
widen in the dim face inches from his on the pillow.
He lets his face
drift, on the tide of blood
risen within him, across those inches to set their mouths together,
carefully testing for the angle, while her fingers caress him in a rhythm
slower than that of his thudding heart.
As the space narrows to nothing he is watchful
of his heart, his accomplice in sin.
Their kiss tastes to him of the
fish she so nicely prepared, its lemon and chives, and of asparagus.
Rain whips at the screen.
The leak onto the windowsill
accelerates its tapping.
A brilliant close flash shocks the air
everywhere and less than a second later a heart-stopping crack and
splintering of thunder crushes
the house from above.
As if in overflow of this natural heedlessness,
Pru says "Shit," jumps from the bed, slams shut the window, pulls down the
shade, tears open her
bathrobe and sheds it, and, reaching down, pulls her nightie up over her head.
Her tall pale wide-hipped nakedness in the dimmed room is lovely much
as those pear trees in blossom along that block in Brewer last month were
lovely, all his it had seemed, a piece of
Paradise blundered upon,
"I know how to inflame a cunt.
I shoot hot bolts into you, Tania.
I make your ovaries
Your Sylvester is a little
He feels something does he?
He feels the
remnants of my big prick.
I have set the shores a little wider.
I have ironed out the wrinkles."
- Henry Valentine Miller,
Tropic of Cancer, 1934
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