- Rabbit Rerun:Updike's Replay of Popular Culture in Rabbit at Rest
Fifty-Five Years Old, toting two-hundred-thirty pounds, and wallowing in semiretirement, Harry Angstrom has decided to take up books in Rabbit at Rest, so fulfilling an intention that a wall-to-wall carpeted den has inspired at the end of Rabbit Is Rich. Not just any books does this newly literate Rabbit read, though—no potboilers or murder mysteries or harlequin romances for him. Harry, as befits his paterfamilias status of grandfather, has taken to reading history, "that sinister mulch of facts our little lives grow out of before joining the mulch themselves" (44), and this last volume of John Updike's tetralogy shows Harry studiously progressing through Barbara Tuchman's The First Salute. Given the fact that the heart attack that Harry suffers early in the novel provides him with an opportunity to see his own proverbial history pass before his eyes, this desire to review the past is all to the good. In Harry's case, however, the past that he reviews on that occasion is one that lends itself, quite literally, to re-viewing. Sunfishing with his granddaughter when the attack occurs, and aware of his need to deliver the child to safety, Harry asks the girl to sing to him in order to keep him awake at the tiller. Judy quickly [End Page 45] exhausts her repertoire of nursery rhymes and shifts to television jingles, and when pressed for as yet unused material, she comes up with songs from The Wizard of Oz, Snow White, and Pinocchio, "children's classics Rabbit saw when they were new, the first time in those old movie theatres with Arabian decors and plush curtains that pulled back and giant mirrors in the lobby" (Rest 140), and she and Harry glide safely onto shore.
Judy's familiarity with the songs of those classic movies stems from the videotaped versions she has watched over and over again in her home since, as Rabbit Is Rich depicts, the theaters for which Harry nostalgically yearns have been turned into porno palaces well before her birth, and, as Rabbit at Rest adds, even their pleas for historical restoration have themselves succumbed to time, mere shingles whining ELP AVE ME. Unfortunately, the substitutes that have taken their places offer little in compensation due to artifacts they show that provide still less in the way of innovation. We're no longer off to see the Wizard, just cruising on The Love Boat; not wishing upon a star, merely "Stayin' Alive." "D'you ever get the feeling everything these days is sequels," Harry responds when asked if he has seen Jaws II. "Like people are running out of ideas" (Rich 377).
And not just ideas. Whether it be gas, as the opening to Rabbit Is Rich asserts, or gumption, as the entirety of Rabbit Redux illustrates, the America that Harry Angstrom is meant to mirror is in steady decline in Updike's novels.1 And not just according to Updike. Tuchman's "View of the American Revolution" that Updike has Harry reading in Rabbit at Rest is a view of an American empire succeeding a British empire that succeeds a Dutch empire, all of which suggests a view of empire as an inevitably declining state of affairs. Yet Harry, for all his good intentions, cannot warm to such an intellectual view of history or to such a distant period of time: in point of fact, they put him to sleep. The only periods of America's past in which he can immerse himself thoroughly are those through which he himself has lived. Likewise, for all his ranting about global events and crises in American foreign policy, the concerns that touch him personally are contained more in the popular than the political, specifically, within those same artifacts of popular culture to which his own weakening heart has responded. To him, as Updike writes, "[t]he movie palaces of his boyhood, packed with sweet odors and dark velvet, [End Page 46] murmurs and giggles and held hands, were history. HELP SAVE ME" (Rest 184). What Harry does not realize, however, is that the...