As a whole, the series is a fascinating, absorbing picture of an average, selfish, hedonistic, waveringly moral and occasionally tormented man's trek through the last half of 20th Century America, and it becomes very much of a picture of the those times. Every book is rooted squarely in it's own era, and the characters both comment on everything going on around them, what's in the papers and what's in the news, and are affected by it. If you read these books as they came out, which I more or less did with the last couple, it felt strange and unsettling, as if what was only in the papers yesterday had suddenly taken on the weight and durability of fiction. Updike had a way of capturing the fading moment and making it immortal.
With the first novel, however -- and by the way, I decided upon Updike's death in January to read them all again -- the picture is far more micro than macro, a 1959 story of American rootlessness, the loss of youth and vitality, and the yearning for God amidst apparent absence.
Like many novels, it's about a young man searching for the meaning of life, the distinction being that this young man is not a well-read intellectual, like say, Stephen Dedalus. The life and experiences of Updike's immortal protagonist, ex-high school basketball star Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, are not extraordinary. They're so common in some ways that Harry hardly seems to have the weight, the gravity, to anchor a major work of fiction, let alone four others. Updike nonetheless makes Harry's averageness interesting, mainly because after awhile he seems -- in his confusion, his drives, his sense of alienation, and his sometimes fumbling way of dealing with the world at large -- less average than universal. A modern man, burning up with the American energy to move, but no real idea of where to go.
Harry enters adulthood realizing that life is, if not already over, then at the very least something of a mystery in which there is no clear path. The signposts all lead to dead ends. He still lives in the dreary Pennsylvania town where he grew up, he and his wife, Janice, have a small son, Nelson, and Harry's job, such as it is, means standing around in a supermarket demonstrating a gimmicky kitchen device called the MagiPeel Peeler.
When we first meet Harry, he's coming home from work, sees some kids playing at a back lot court, and invites himself to join them, as if to remind himself that there was one thing he was once very good at. Coming home reminds him where he wound up. The house is a mess. Janice, once a pretty wisp of a girl, has turned into a dumb, slack mother who parks herself in front of the TV and only gets up to freshen her drink. She has dumped Nelson off at her parents. On the TV is the Mickey Mouse Club, where the head Mouseketeer Jimmy shares some gooey conventional wisdom that lights the fuse under Rabbit, and will result in his flight from domestic hell:
Know Thyself, a wise old Greek once said. Know Thyself. Now what does this mean, boys and girls? It means, be what you are. Don't try to be Sally or Johnny or Fred next door, be yourself. God doesn't want a tree to be a waterfall, or a flower to be a stone. God gives to each of us a special talent.
And what is Rabbit's talent, what is his role? Harry, who is as conventionally Christian as he is conventionally so much else, isn't real sure where God is, either. All Harry really knows is that his life has entered a dreary routine and, when he leaves to pick up Nelson from the in-laws, impulsively decides on taking a detour.
Rabbit's night ride takes him only briefly away from his hometown, making it as far as West Virginia before heading back. Instead of going home he seeks the counsel of his old high school coach, Marty Tothero.
Rabbit is always seeking counsel throughout the novel, always looking for someone to set him straight, to give him a clear course, and Tothero is hardly the person to ask. Instead, he seems the very picture of Rabbit's own confusion; he is sympathetic to Janice, and stupidly suggests Rabbit should have helped her hold things together by drinking with her, but so sympathetic to Rabbit's despair that he basically sets him up with Ruth, a local "hooer," a kind of non-professional prostitute.
Ruth is everything Janice isn't: she's fattish, tart-tongued, fleshy, atheist, and very much the hard core realist. Harry moves in with her and tries to forge some kind of life on his own. Balancing her out is Jack Eccles, an Episcopalian pastor who wants Harry to be certain of Christ's love eventhough he himself is no longer sure of it at all. Eccles is married to the pretty and flirtatious Lucy, who gave up the faith long ago and who will serve as a temptation to Harry to stray even further.
Updike says in his introduction to the Everyman edition that Rabbit gave him "a way in -- a ticket to the America all around me," but here, in this novel, it's a ticket to the themes that would later come to dominate his career -- namely the struggle between religious faith and a real world absorbed in chaos, which would figure in A Month of Sundays and Roger's Version, among others, as well as many short stories. It also demonstrates his extraordinarily exacting prose, although it lacks the polish of his later novels. Updike had wanted in his early years to be a cartoonist and a painter, and studied to become one, and his descriptions of people are nothing if not painterly. He always sees the people in his novels, visualizes them, and renders them with unstinting accuracy.
But there is, too, in this novel, a sense of a writer who is a little too pleased with himself, as well as one who isn't yet absolutely sure of his style. Later in the novel, when Harry returns to Janice and then leaves yet again, her random thoughts run in a very stream-of-conscious way that just seems like a bad imitation of Molly Bloom's monologue in Joyce's Ulysses.
He also demonstrates here something he would show over and over in the books to come, which is that he's better than almost any one at capturing what goes on between people when they are trying to communicate: the mixed messages, the signals, the passive-aggressiveness, the sexual tension between men and women.
In fact, it's the tension, the not-knowingness, the what-do-I-do that makes the book so powerful. In a way Harry is like a character in a Bresson film; Updike wants you to meet him just as you would any human being, without being told, up front, how you're supposed to feel, whether you're supposed to like or hate him. One feels no attachment to Harry -- the responses of readers range from dislike to indifference -- but it's hard not to feel deeply involved in his life.
It's the push-and-pull of life, of what he's going through; the great inner and outer tension of how you resolve the unresolvable -- which, incidentally, Updike doesn't even bother to do. None of the book's resolve anything, really, at least nothing fundamental, yet each feels complete.