Books, the Burbs, and Me: On Discovering John Updike

I saw the strangest thing Friday.

While visiting an assisted-living facility for the first time  (I,  happily,  am not – at least for now  — the potential resident!),  we were  taken to a model room designed to show off the place to its best advantage. One touch that immediately caught my eye was a pile of books, obviously placed to stress the amount of time that would be available for quiet reading.

This would have been no big deal were it not for the fact that the “prop” book on the top of the pile was John Updike’s shattering Rabbit at Rest, the last of the four Rabbit Angstrom novels that tells of Rabbit’s  turbulent and emotionally charged Florida retirement. Without spoiling any of the plot,  his is a retirement in which any looking back is at a trail of unrealized dreams, infidelities, and opportunities missed.  Rabbit in Florida has not completely run out of what filmmaker Tom Joslin called “the steam of life,”  but the voracious sexuality and mischievousness of his youth is a distant memory.

Rabbit at Rest as an incentive to signing up for assisted living? Probably not a good choice.

But this did remind me of John Updike, who died in January, 2009  after a distinguished and prolific career as a critic, novelist, and poet.

I grew up in an middle-class  Southern California suburb in the 1960s,  and  for most of my late adolescence had no idea that any serious writers either had ever placed their characters and their conflicts in suburbia.  The fiction we read  conjured a distant, turbulent, urban world where people were expansive and outraged, a place where hyperventilating people gesticulated  and exaggerated.

We of the “ticky-tacky boxes” were condemned to talk of lawn furniture. Our “epic journeys” ended at shopping malls.

Everyone else, I remember thinking, got to live in places with grit and pain and authenticity. We, though, were simply too drab to be worthy of a novelist’s attention.

The result was that many of us high-tailed it out of the burbs in search of that authenticity. We were escaping a place that only seemed real in biting social satire like Malvina Reynolds’s Little Boxes.

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,
Little boxes, little boxes,
Little boxes, all the same

Then — in New York City, long after fleeing the little boxes  — I found Updike.

And I learned for the first time what writers like Updike and John Cheever had been saying all along and what filmmakers like Sam Mendes, David Lynch, and Tim Burton would later  suggest in their riveting, suburban-themed work:  It’s not that nothing was going on in West Covina, California.

It’s that we weren’t paying attention.

We shopped in strip malls and lived in matching  houses that were for the most part invisible in our literature.  We certainly saw nothing of ourselves in the work of the  “ruralists” (Faulkner, Steinbeck,  and Morrison) and were even less visible in the work of the “urbanists” (Dickens, Dreiser, Mailer, Ellison, Roth, Bellow).   We were the conformists, we were the strivers, and – most shamefully  — we were beside some mysterious, larger point.

I devoured Updike. I remember one marathon weekend reading what was then still the Rabbit trilogy, and flashing back on every nameless gray-flannel guy I knew as a kid in 1950s suburbia. Of course, I realized, some of those suits had to have been the veneer for turbulent and desperate  inner lives.  Some had to have felt pain in the days before they told their kids of disintegrating families and failed businesses and cocktail hours that had become cocktail lives.

There were only a few seedy and secluded bars down near the railroad tracks, but some of those men had to have been stopping there to anesthetize something inside.  One attractive  young mother,  a dead giveaway for June Cleaver with a permanently plastered smile, could not have watched her son’s legs atrophy from polio without wrenching  agony. And one day the happy family three doors down  woke up to find an  empty closet, a missing car, and only a few remnants of a father who never, ever came back.

No Tom. No note. No Dad. Ever.

The point is that our little boxes held as much potential for emotional turbulence and longing as Steinbeck’s central valley or Dreiser’s Chicago.  Updike knew that and produced a body of work that mined middle class life for all the adultery, anger, and angst he could find. And all I can say is that — when I read Rabbit, Run, Couples, or Rabbit Redux, when I read the Maple stories – I knew that he knew.

One of the great ironies that I discovered only years later was that at the same time , two small towns over in the slightly hardscrabble town of Duarte, California, a kid eight years older than me was watching the same scene,  seeing all the rage to which I was oblivious (thanks to a family that apparently served up generous portions of it), and imagining stories he might someday write that would tear away the veneer. His name was Sam Shepard.

I still remember Rabbit Angstrom’s last words to his son in Rabbit at Rest.

“Well, Nelson,” he says, “all I can tell you is, it isn’t so bad.” Rabbit thinks he should maybe say more, the kids looks wildly expectant, but enough. Maybe.  Enough.