Updike, Malamud, and the Fire This Time
Taking certain striking passages out of context from some recent American novels, one might conclude that white writers in this country have been engulfed by a wave of racial paranoia. To begin with, there is the elegantly dressed black pickpocket in Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet who exhibits his ropy male member to the panicked Mr. Sammler as an ominous lesson in “lordliness.” Still more emphatically, Bernard Malamud’s Willie Spearmint, the black novelist in The Tenants1 stirs an acrid literary brew in which black guerrilla squads round up “wailing, hand-wringing Zionists” to finish them off with pistols or, in another version, stab “Goldberg” to death and taste his sour flesh. In the last confrontation of the novel—or is it only the protagonist’s final fantasy?—Willie’s slicing knife unsexes Lesser, the Jewish writer, at the very moment, to be sure, when Lesser’s ax cleaves the skull of the black man. John Updike’s Rabbit Redux,2 moreover, demonstrates that these visions of menacing black power unleashed are not restricted to Jewish writers. Updike’s working-class white Protestant protagonist, contemplating the eerie, manipulative Negro fugitive he has taken into his home, suddenly sees him as “evil,” mentally comparing him to the backyard cesspool he used to poke into as a boy. “Now this black man opens up under him in the same way: a pit of scummed stench impossible to see to the bottom of.”
The relationship, of course, between a novelist’s fantasies—specifically, the acts and attitudes he ascribes to fictional characters—and his actual views, or those of any group with which he could be linked, is bound to be ambiguous, fluctuating, difficult to chart. Sociological and political perspectives on literature are surely necessary if literature is to be taken seriously as an act of public discourse, but these perspectives easily do violence to the literary work by too crudely connecting fictional invention with social fact. A case in point is John Murray Cuddihy’s “Jews, Blacks, and the Cold War at the Top,”3 an essay that builds upon The Tenants and upon a survey of Saul Bellow’s work a general argument about Jewish literary intellectuals, their attitude toward black writers, and the problems both groups have with the novel as a form of self-expression. Cuddihy’s intellectual earnestness has led him to research the backgrounds of his subject with admirable thoroughness, but in his avowed orientation as “a sociologist of literature” I think he is seriously confused about the implications of Malamud’s novel as well as about the larger issue of literary form and group identity.
In The Tenants, one recalls, the novelist Harry Lesser, living on the top story of an otherwise abandoned tenement building, is joined on the floor below by Willie Spearmint, an aspiring black writer. The two men pass from mutual suspicion to a distinctly uneasy friendship to violent enmity. Lesser gains the affections of Willie’s Jewish mistress; Willie burns Lesser’s manuscript; Lesser responds by chopping up the black novelist’s typewriter with an ax; and all this concludes in that ghastly vision of mutual destruction. Cuddihy’s reading of the novel turns it into a virtual allegory of what he conceives as a cultural struggle between black and Jewish writers for a “room at the top.” The struggle is less for power than for status, each of the two minorities seeking cultural preeminence by pressing its claim to the prestigious role of supreme Victim. Lesser is the established figure—he has already published two novels, one of them a critical success—Willie the interloper. Lesser, according to Cuddihy, is willing to accept the black newcomer only on condition of keeping him literally and figuratively below himself. At Willie’s invitation, the Jew tries to teach the black writer something about literary form, ultimately frustrating and infuriating the younger man through his advice. This proffered aid, in Cuddihy’s view, is primarily a self-protective affirmation of special privilege on the part of the Jewish writer: “Black experience is eligible for registration in cultural terms only if it assumes proper fictional form. Lesser and his colleagues [presumably, Jewish literary intellectuals in real life] are the self-appointed custodians of these rubrical and civilized matters.” Reflecting on Willie Spearmint’s resentment against the exigencies of form, Cuddihy contends that the “Wasp art-novel” (sic) is in fact “ethnically emasculating” to Jews and blacks alike, and he tries to illustrate this thesis by reviewing the career of Saul Bellow. What Cuddihy describes as the “central insight” of that career is a perception that East-European Jewry, in the tenor and texture of its distinctive experience, is not Romansfaehig, not susceptible of representation in the modernist novel. Thus, Augie March, because it adopts the sprawling, episodic qualities of the picaresque novel, is viewed as an authentic attempt to achieve an appropriate ethnic narrative form, while Cuddihy can assert of the Bellow who wrote Herzog that “he has ‘sold out’ to the good-taste canon of Western modernism.”
To set straight the most basic issue first, the notion of a Wasp art-novel is mere nonsense, and it vividly illustrates the absurdity in the new fashion of attributing all cultural facts to ethnic origins. The so-called art-novel, most literary historians would agree, begins with Flaubert, a French cultural Catholic. If one of Flaubert’s influential heirs, Henry James, was in fact the scion of a patrician Protestant New England family, the Flaubertian conception of painstaking formal structure and minute attention to narrative viewpoint was equally taken up by Conrad, an expatriate Pole, and most signally by Joyce, a writer who beyond any consideration of faith remained profoundly Irish-Catholic.
On the other side of the question, the literary production of thoroughly Protestant writers is hardly so homogeneous as Cuddihy implies. “The Protestant ethic,” he claims, “—impersonal service of an impersonal end—passes imperceptibly into the Protestant aesthetic of restraint and self-effacement, As self-importance and vanity violate the Protestant ethic, exhibitionism and ostentation are the core lapses in the Protestant aesthetic.” Wherever this Protestant aesthetic existed, it could not have existed in a once-Protestant country called the United States, or else what is one to make of Poe, Melville, Mark Twain, and, above all, Walt Whitman as American writers, of Faulkner as the major American modernist, of Henry Miller as a self-conscious heir to Whitman and to the Protestant spiritual tradition? Indeed, Bellow’s explicit intent in Augie March was not to write distinctively ethnic fiction but, on the contrary, to make a mainstream American novel out of Jewish immigrant experience, and precisely for that reason he drew on Mark Twain and Whitman as models for the free-swinging looseness of his narrative form and the flamboyant expansiveness of his style.
Assuming an identity between a putative Protestant aesthetic and the modernist novel, Cuddihy implies that the Jewish protagonist of The Tenants, as a self-appointed custodian of civilized matters, has unwittingly “sold out” to the dominant Wasp norms—like Saul Bellow and, presumably, like Malamud himself. The novel, however, makes it quite clear that Lesser criticizes the black writer’s work not on the basis of some external norm or fixed model of literary form but for the self-defeating contradictions within the work itself. Willie’s weakness for inflated rhetoric, as Lesser sees it, violates the “simplicity and tensile spareness of his sensibility.” His impulse to articulate a revolutionary position often sits uncomfortably with his attempt to make sense of his personal experience. Far from wanting Willie to write a Wasp novel, Lesser is simply asserting that art as communication must have internal coherence, that every literary work must integrate the appropriate means to its own specific ends. Not to make this demand is to surrender literature to a chaos of self-indulgence underwritten by a mystique of ethnicity. A few years ago, Richard Gilman was suggesting that no white critic had the right to judge the work of a black writer. Now, Cuddihy’s more general argument about ethnic form would turn our national literature into an archipelago of ethnic and racial islands, each speaking according to its own mysterious laws, not to be judged or assimilated by others.
What of the claim that The Tenants reflects a conflict between Jews and blacks over cultural status? Obviously, Malamud as a novelist whose own rise to prominence coincided with a vogue of Jewish writing in America must have been very conscious in his choice of subject of black writing as a new literary wave. Nevertheless, there is no evidence in the novel that Lesser conceives his relationship with Willie as a competition for literary preeminence, though the interaction of the two races is a central concern. To begin with, the supposed vying for the role of chief victim is nowhere present in the novel. Black victimhood cries out from every page of Willie’s writing, but Lesser unhesitantly grants this prerogative to the black writer while his own work is in no way concerned with the Jewish role as victim, and he makes very little of that role outside his work. Indeed, the only references to past persecution of the Jews are introduced by Willie in the anti-Jewish fiction he writes after the deterioration of his relationship with Lesser (he calls one story, “The First Pogrom in America”).
More important, there is no real status for the two writers to struggle over, and Lesser’s residence on the top floor of the tenement as it is actually described in no way allows the figurative sense of a “room at the top.” On the contrary: the tenement is a trap, a self-elected prison-hole, a womb-tomb, still another embodiment of the claustrophiliac vision that informs Malamud’s whole oeuvre. Lesser’s shabby apartment, despite its elevation, is not different in meaning or psychological function from Morris Bober’s grocery store in The Assistant. Like Bober, Lesser is bound to his place by chains of habit, by fear of the outside world, and finally by the unbending integrity of his commitment to a futile calling.
This psychological deadlock of self-incarceration is stressed in the novel by Lesser’s maddening refusal of the landlord’s astronomically mounting cash offers and of his mistress’s urgent imploring to leave the apartment. He finally renounces material security, love, even the most basic physical safety, in order to stay where he is. “The bribe has increased but this is where Lesser’s book was conceived more than a decade ago, died a premature (temporary) death, and seeks rebirth. Lesser is a man of habit, order, steady disciplined work.” Willie Spearmint is an apprentice to Lesser not so much in the art of writing—Lesser ultimately fails to teach him anything about that—as in the ardor for self-enclosure. The Negro is a far more obstreperous and hostile disciple than the Italian Frank Alpine in The Assistant, but, like Alpine, he finally does become a “Jew” in Malamud’s special sense—a man who renounces the great world, accepts the confines of some personal prison, takes up a self-punishing labor of Sisyphus in which the act of commitment itself becomes its own ultimate end. What seems to underlie a large part of Malamud’s work is a private obsession presenting itself as a universal moral vision,4 and this is nowhere clearer than in The Tenants, where the urgently topical materials finally fall into precisely the pattern of the fiction he was writing ten, fifteen, and twenty years ago.
The peculiar nature of the white-black confrontation in Malamud, and the limits of its range of implication, will become clearer through a comparison with the encounter between the two races in the new Updike novel. It is intriguing that two such different writers should have produced simultaneously novels in which the plotting of the racial situation is so similar. By an uncanny coincidence, the white protagonists of both novels even turn out to be exactly the same age, thirty-six, and to have the same first name, Harry. (Updike’s Harry Angstrom is German-American, so the name is as probable for him as for the Jewish Harry Lesser.) In each case, a vague, passive, ineffectual character is discovered trying to hang on to a viable sense of self in the eroding terrain of his early middle years, sustaining himself with the fading memory of youthful success (Lesser’s first novel, Rabbit’s brilliant career as a basketball player that antedates the action of Rabbit, Run). Lesser, of course, has his dogged sense of vocation; Rabbit has only his ticky-tacky house in a low-cost suburb, his passionless marriage, his long-haired adolescent son whom he does not understand.
In each of the two novels, a black man insinuates himself into the dwelling place of the white. Each of the Harrys sees his black visitor, spun out of the inferno of the ghetto, as a wild, hostile, threatening figure who also somehow manages—through the white man’s guilt?—to exercise a weird attraction. Both Angstrom and Lesser become willing if profoundly ambivalent hosts to their black guests, entering into a relationship of teacher and disciple, though in Rabbit Redux it is the white man who is the disciple. In each novel, there is a white woman sexually shared, in rather different ways, by the black and the white man. In each case, the protagonist’s persistence in the role of host becomes a crazed acquiescence in his own destruction. “My God, Lesser,” cries Levenspiel, the distraught landlord, finding his tenant in bloody battle with Willie, “look what you have done to yourself. You’re your own worst enemy, bringing a naked nigger into this house. If you don’t take my advice and move out you’ll wake up one morning playing a banjo in your grave.” Much the same advice is given Angstrom by his two menacing neighbors, Brumbach and Showalter, who come to warn him that he had better get the black man out of his house if he doesn’t want serious trouble. Finally, each of the black visitors is involved in an act of fiery destruction toward the conclusion of the action. Willie burns Lesser’s novel, the anguished work of ten years, so that the Jewish writer sees himself “buried in ashes,” while Updike’s Skeeter flees the Angstrom house in a suspect midnight blaze that destroys most of Rabbit’s material possessions as well as the pathetic girl Rabbit had not quite managed to love.
Cautiously, one might draw certain general inferences from these similarities of plot. The sustained assertion of black militancy, a decade after James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” seems to conjure up for white literary imaginations a recurrent vision of—quite literally—the fire this time. Angry blacks force upon white consciousness the bitter knowledge of their collective pain and degradation; in the novels, Willie does this through his writing, Skeeter through his nightly lectures in Rabbit’s living room on black history. The white man responds with guilt, a concomitant feeling of obligation, and, above all, with an apocalyptic fear that such suffering must issue in a destructive rage of unimaginable proportion and effect. The female character shuttling between races in each of the novels embodies a renewed insight into the profoundly sexual nature of the guilt, fear, and attraction that exist between the two races. In both books, the principal characters carry out bizarrely altered reenactments of the historical sexual exploitation of blacks by whites. In The Tenants, the white man “emasculates” the black, takes his woman from him, though she is in this case white, first attracted to her lover by his blackness. In Rabbit Redux, the white girl, Jill, is forced by Skeeter to assume the historical role of the black woman in a sinister psychodrama where he plays the “white” male, sadistically exploiting her, humiliating her before her lover, making her worship his sex.
Finally, a central awareness most clearly shared by both novels is a white failure of nerve, or at least a flagging sense of white identity, in the face of black assertiveness. Rabbit and Jill, a generation apart, are in their different ways both rudderless people, caught in the powerful undertow of the black man’s vehement self-affirmation, and the same is true of Irene in The Tenants. Even Lesser, with his habit-bound commitment to the writer’s vocation, has only a vague sense of identity, unmoored in the world of experience outside his manuscript, and his black visitor’s certainty about self, however manic, exerts its magnetism on him. Willie makes this general point succinctly in describing his relationship with Irene: “She had nothing she believed in herself. I straightened her out in the main ways because I gave her an example, that I believed in my blackness.” The white man’s fading belief in himself and in his inherited values is brought forth with comic poignancy in one of Lesser’s dreams, where, clad in raffia skirt and anklets, he dances before the thatched huts of an African village. Suddenly his decrepit father appears:
You should be ashamed to dance like a shvartzer, without any clothes on.
It’s a ceremonial dance, papa.
It’s my own fault because I didn’t give you a Jewish education.
The old man weeps.
Although these tentative generalizations about the common implications of the two novels may have a degree of validity, a closer examination of the imaginative texture of each book will suggest that the two writers make very different use of the same racial preoccupations. In order to convey this difference in texture, I would like to set end-to-end two descriptions of city scenes that occur at the beginnings of the two novels. In each case, we see an older neighborhood in an Eastern city scarred by the characteristic contemporary blight of demolition and parking lots. Here is Lesser, stepping outside his apartment building:
In front of the decaying brown-painted tenement, once a decent house, Lesser’s pleasure dome, he gave it spirit—stood a single dented ash can containing mostly his crap, thousands of torn-up screaming words and rotting apple cores, coffee grinds, and broken eggshells, a literary rubbish can, the garbage of language become the language of garbage. . . . Next building on the left had long ago evaporated into a parking lot, its pop-art remains, the small-roomed skeletal scars and rabid colors testifying former colorless existence, hieroglyphed on Levenspiel’s brick wall; and there was a rumor around that the skinny house on the right, ten thin stories from the 1880’s (Mark Twain lived there?) with a wrought-iron-banistered stoop and abandoned Italian cellar restaurant, was touched for next. Beyond that an old red-brick public school, three stories high, vintage of 1903, the curled numerals set like a cameo high on the window-smashed facade, also marked for disappearance. In New York who needs an atom bomb? If you walked away from a place they tore it down.
To this one might usefully compare Updike’s initial description of downtown Brewer:
Now in summer the granite curbs starred with mica and the row houses differentiated by speckled bastard sidings and the hopeful small porches with their jigsaw brackets and gray milk-bottle boxes and the sooty ginkgo trees and the baking curbside cars wince beneath a brilliance like a frozen explosion. The city, attempting to revive its dying downtown, has torn away blocks of buildings to create parking lots, so that a desolate openness, weedy and rubbled, spills through the once-packed streets, exposing church facades never seen from a distance and generating new perspectives of rear entryways and half-alleys and intensifying the cruel breadth of the light. The sky is cloudless yet colorless, hovering blanched humidity, in the way of these Pennsylvania summers, good for nothing but to make green things grow. Men don’t even tan; filmed by sweat, they turn yellow.
The obvious difference between Updike’s omniscient overview and Malamud’s rendering of the scene through his character’s point of view has broad ramifications in the way each novel handles its larger subject. What engages us in the passage from The Tenants is the manner in which it catches the special inflections of Lesser’s thought and, at the very end, of his speech as well. This means, however, that we get nothing of the outside world that does not somehow mirror the struggling novelist’s peculiar predicament. Indeed, the world outside his writer’s refuge is first seen simply as a dumping-ground for his physical and literary wastes. The only details he picks up of the cityscape around him are reminders that his own fifth-floor hermitage stands under the shadow of the wrecker’s ball. The external reflections, in fact, of his own plight are even more specific. A demolished building leaves a hieroglyphic testimony of its colorless existence—which is about what can be expected from Lesser’s life, from his career as a writer. A neighboring tenement is lingered over momentarily partly because Lesser thinks it once may have given shelter to a novelist, Mark Twain. One even suspects that the condemned old school with the smashed windows echoes a sense the protagonist has of his own anachronistic bookishness in a landscape of urban violence, ascetic devotee of a Flaubertian concept of the writer’s craft in a high-decibel age where activism passes for art.
In the Updike passage, on the other hand, there is a pervading sense of the city scene, the houses and streets with their human population, even the weather, as a coherent ensemble expressing a whole mode of life at a particular time and place. The informing authorial intelligence, personifying porches and cars, sunlight and open space, has an emphatic interpretive view which gives the scene its sharpness of definition, makes it mean something as a moment in social history. Thus, the final observation about people turning yellow instead of tanning hovers somewhere between plausible fact and literary conceit but serves as a firmly cinching summary of the feel of existence in this lifeforsaken town.
Updike has a keen eye for those minute details which remind us just how such a milieu looks, which suggest how its parts fit together—the granite curbs starred with mica, the sooty ginkgo trees, the speckled sidings on the row houses, the jigsaw brackets and gray milk-bottle boxes on the porches. The Malamud passage does have two analogous details—the curled numerals on the school facade and the wrought-iron banister of the tenement stoop—but these are not part of a panorama or descriptive catalogue, and in any case they show a degree of specification quite untypical of the novel as a whole, which is notable for its abstractness. Although urban “renewal” is going on in The Tenants, pot is smoked at parties, and blacks are talking of revolution, Lesser’s tenement dwelling, scantily furnished and sketchily rendered, is virtually interchangeable with Manischevitz’s flat in “Angel Levine” (1952) or Harry Cohen’s in “The Jewbird” (1963); and Lesser himself, essentially unmarked by history, could serve as a stand-in for S. Levin, Fidelman, Henry Freeman, Leo Finkle, any of those hapless, stranded Malamud protagonists vaguely longing for a new life, for achievement, and above all for love.
By contrast, Rabbit Redux is that rare thing, a convincing sequel, largely because the Harry Angstrom of the Eisenhower years portrayed in Rabbit, Run (1960) reappears here thoroughly a creature of his changed time, caught in its social crises, shaped by his class and surroundings as they have evolved into the late 1960’s. For this reason, the frequent allusions to current news events are genuinely functional, unlike the lamentable Couples, where an unintegrated use of the same device seems a mere affectation of historical realism. Bringing to bear an old-fashioned novelist’s instinct for the defining details of ambience, Updike places the thirty-six-year-old Rabbit in a precise social context linked to the recent years of relative affluence, deepening national malaise, and mass-produced inauthenticity. For example, the contents of Rabbit’s living room, surveyed in the early morning light, have a “Martian” look: “an armchair covered in synthetic fabric enlivened by silver thread, a sofa of air-foam slabs, a low table hacked to imitate an antique cobbler’s bench, a piece of driftwood that is a lamp, nothing shaped directly for its purpose, gadgets designed to repel repair, nothing straight from a human hand, furniture Rabbit has lived among but has never known, made of substances he cannot name, that has aged as in a department store, worn out without once conforming to his body.” Elsewhere, the novel is punctuated with reminders of a national era vanished, the most remarkable of these being a virtuoso description of a sparsely-attended baseball game, the magic of an American ritual turned into an empty charade because “the poetry of space and inaction is too fine, too slowly spun” for this crowd of the late 60’s, and “the old world of heraldic local loyalties” recalled in the team insignias has become alien, almost forgotten.
Updike, it seems to me, is at his best when he is being a rather traditional kind of novelist—which means broadly when, as in both Rabbit novels, the clarity of his social perceptions is not unduly vexed or obfuscated by stylistic mannerisms. I do not mean to suggest in making this general contrast between Rabbit Redux and The Tenants that social realism is intrinsically a superior mode of fiction. The thinness and schematism, however, of Malamud’s new novel could lead one to infer that his real strength as a writer is in the short story rather than the novel because his vision is too private, too detached from the realities of society, his imagination too inclined to fable and parable, for the needs of novelistic elaboration of character, event, and setting. At any rate, I think none of his five novels equals his best short stories in originality of conception and persuasive force, while The Tenants seems to me clearly the weakest volume of fiction he has published. As a fabulist of the frustrated, isolate self, as a wry fantasist of grubby failure, Malamud has invented brilliant things. In The Tenants, the insistent presence of the new black militancy impinges upon his imagination, but one senses his limitations here precisely because in the end he can only make of a crisis in national consciousness grist for his private mill.
Willie Spearmint duly recalls for us ghetto squalor and degradation, Southern persecution, black anger and pride, but all this finally dissolves in Malamud’s claustrophilia, his fixation on the allures of withdrawal and sordid self-interment, and that preoccupation has no intrinsic connection with the racial situation. Here is Lesser near the end of his sad story: “Nights he lay nauseated in piss-smelling hallways, sick, grieving, the self to whom such things happen a running sore.” The nastiness of this has to be explained in terms of the loathing Malamud must feel toward the self-defeating masochistic character he is condemned to invent again and again. It has nothing to do with the conflict between black and white. The running sore of the self—a self unrepresentative in its special neurosis—fills the canvas of the novel, blurring the delineation of racial relations within it. Willie Spearmint, as I intimated earlier, becomes another Lesser, like him withdrawing from the world into a dilapidated trap, cultivating a destiny of self-immolation, wallowing in dirt, and at the end, again like his Jewish mentor, dabbling in excreta (each searches daily through the garbage cans outside to fish out the rejected drafts of the other). The ultimate moment of mutual slaughter is less a novelistic ending than an idea, a means of symmetrically finishing off both self-destructive characters since there is no way out of the claustral morass they have entered. The schematic conception of the ending is reflected in the neatness of the reversal by which the black man, having felt himself threatened with emasculation, castrates the white as the latter smashes the brain of the aspiring black writer. The whole working-out of the plot is so caught up in Malamud’s private preoccupations with filth, womb-like enclosure, the inability to love (Lesser hopes to learn that by writing about it), and a writer’s fear of losing creative é1an, that it is extremely difficult, as Jacob Korg, reviewing the book in these pages,5 somehow managed to do, to read it as a resonant prophetic warning about the actual relationship between the races.
With Rabbit Redux the case is rather different. Updike exhibits, I think, a certain boldness in placing at the center of a novel about our time an average, unintellectual, politically conservative, working-class figure. By successfully representing the confusions, anxieties, and blind longings of such a character, he manages, in a time-honored tradition of the novel, to bring us the “news” about something going on in our society, enabling us to see a familiar phenomenon more sharply, from within. Indeed, if a German-American laborer (laid off in the end by automation) can be granted title to ethnicity, one might contend that this is the first notable novel about the much-discussed anguish of the neglected ethnic amid the upheavals of the Vietnam years, the revolutions of the young and the black. I find the rendering here of one ordinary American’s feelings toward blacks generally persuasive because those feelings are represented without authorial attitudinizing, as a visceral perception of the black’s otherness. Harry Angstrom is physically uncomfortable in the presence of blacks yet fascinated by their seemingly impenetrable alienness; hidebound by prejudices of class and race against blacks yet paradoxically open to their suffering because, after all, he cannot entirely muffle his awareness that they are men like himself. “Talking to Negroes makes him feel itchy, up behind the eyeballs, maybe because theirs look so semi-liquid and yellow in the white and sore. Their whole beings seemed lubricated on pain.” In the bizarre character of Skeeter, Updike strains the idea of black otherness to the limits, Skeeter at times seeming more a projection of Rabbit’s fantasies than an independent personage. For me, however, the strategy finally works through its extremeness: the conventional Angstrom is hypnotized into a trance of passivity by the black man’s sheer outrance, compelled to a dazed attentiveness quite unlike his ordinary mental habits by the psychological and rhetorical contortions of the utterly alien black.
But this is not, one can be thankful, a homiletic novel about the conversion of a bigot. Rabbit is deeply shaken by his extended encounter with Skeeter, literally and figuratively burned by it, but he plausibly remains more or less what he was. At the end he still supports the war in Vietnam, still has scorn for Americans who defame America, still feels prejudice toward “Spics” (his wife’s lover is Greek-American) and others who have dark skins or foreign origins. His loyalty to the idea of America remains, but now, after Skeeter’s bitter lectures, it is shot through with doubts about what America has really been. His sense of distance from blacks is almost the same, his fear of them surely enlarged, but he also sees them more clearly as human beings, understands in some way the exigencies of their troubled condition.
What emerges most prominently from Rabbit’s confusions is a sense of complicity. He can no longer see the nation altogether as a division between “we” who are all right and “they” who make the trouble, for he has reached some inner knowledge that we all have a hand in the trouble. The result, for better or for worse, is not a resolution but a new kind of confusion, a free-floating guilt that as yet has no proper outlet. Harry Lesser’s self-victimization is a matter of individual obsession; Harry Angstrom’s self-victimization bespeaks a publicly shared feeling of guilt. Implicated in violent destruction, he thinks of himself as a criminal, wonders why the police don’t arrest him, and with his sense of punishment coming to him he has an open ear to Skeeter’s new gospel for the defeated: “Chuck, you’re learning to be a loser. I love it. The Lord loves it. Losers gonna grab the earth, right?”
His attraction to the fire this time is of a piece with the relief so many frustrated, socially and emotionally trapped Americans must feel in the outlet of violence, in glimpses of an apocalyptic end. “You like any disaster that might spring you free,” his sister tells him, and the jibe strikes home not only for the predicament of one Harry Angstrom. In Updike’s Rabbit novel of the late 50’s, the prisoner of family, class, and place could still dream of winning freedom by getting into a car and heading for open country. Now the only way out he can readily imagine is through the burning down of the whole house: “Freedom means murder,” Rabbit muses moodily during a visit to a Negro bar, “rebirth means death.” Mere flirtation with the apocalypse, however, reinforces feelings of impotence and guilt, and it is on this uncertain note that the novel appropriately concludes. Rabbit is back again with his wife, unable yet to make love to her after their pained separation, unsure what their new relationship will be or what he will do with the terrible shocks of new awareness he has absorbed during the Walpurgisnacht of his strange ménage with Skeeter and Jill. The dialogue between him and his wife before they drift into an exhausted sleep is curt, impatient, restive. The first voice is Rabbit’s:
I feel so guilty.
Relax. Not everything is your fault.
I can’t accept that.
As a way of bringing a novel to a close, this may seem indefinite, hesitant, denying us the satisfactions of a resolution—even an apocalpytic resolution like Malamud’s—but it says something that sounds right about where we are now. After all that has passed in political and literary history, it is reassuring that some novels still perform that prosaic but necessary task.
1 Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 230 pp., $6.95.
2 Knopf, 407 pp., $7.95.
3 Worldview, February 1972.
4 I am indebted on this point to the insights of Marilyn Fabe, who is working on a psychoanalytic study of Malamud’s novels as a doctoral dissertation.
5 May 1972.