PPRL: Rabbit at Rest, by John Updike (winner, 1991)

I actually finished this one back in April, but then it was Coachella this and mind-altering drugs that, and really, I can't be expected to pursue goals on odd-numbered years as well as even ones.

Anyway, it was with great sadness that I said goodbye to Rabbit. As I so rabidly frothed once before, with this series John Updike coasted to the top of my favorite authors list. This last installment secured his place there, I expect, quite permanently.

There is one particularly unforgettable moment in Rabbit at Rest I'm going to share in hopes of backing up my Updike idolatry. There's tons more context and background than I can condense quickly but I'll do my best.

Picture a middle aged man, a former basketball star whose teenage athleticism remains for him his greatest source of pride. But now he's packing on the pounds, an incessant snacker whose lack of self-control causes him shame and frustration. He's losing his sex appeal, and that stings, too. Harry greatly relies on the respect of others - his friends, his wife, even his young grandchildren - to help keep his ego healthy. But he's losing steam, and his lust for life. Today he's at Jungle Gardens animal park with his wife Janice and their grandkids Roy and Judy.

After the flamingos, the path takes them to a snack bar in a pavilion, and a shell-and-butterfly exhibit, and a goldfish pond, and a cage of black leopards just as Harry had promised Roy. The black-eyed child stares at the animals’ noiseless pacing as if into the heart of a whirlpool that might suck him down. A small machine such as those that in Harry’s youth supplied a handful of peanuts or pistachio nuts in almost every gas station and grocery store is fixed to a pavilion post near an area where peacocks restlessly drag their extravagant feathers across the dust. Here he makes his historic blunder. As his three kin move ahead he fishes in his pocket for a dime, inserts it, receives a handful of brown dry objects, and begins to eat them. They are not exactly peanuts, but perhaps some Florida delicacy, and taste so dry and stale as to be bitter; but who knows how long these machines wait for customers? When he offers some to Judy, though, she looks at them, smells them, and stares up into his face with pure wonderment. “Grandpa!” she cries. “That’s to feed the birds! Grandma! He’s been eating birdfood! Little brown things like rabbit turds!” 
Janice and Roy gather around to see, and Harry holds open his hand to display the shaming evidence. “I didn’t know,” he weakly says. “There’s no sign or anything.” He is suffused with a curious sensation; he feels faintly numb and sick but beyond that, beyond the warm volume enclosed by his skin, the air is swept by a universal devaluation; for one flash he sees his life as a silly thing it will be a relief to discard.

I know. You probably have to be there, at that instant when everything has led to Harry's existential crisis - but I had to try.

And now for today's round of No One Asked For 'Em, and No One Needs 'Em discussion questions!

1. How are birds totemic in the novel? Sparrows, starlings, hawks, buzzards, flamingos...what do they represent, in the story and to Harry personally?

2. Discuss the significance of old cars vs. the new, modern models. What's being sacrificed and what's being gained? Widen this view to the relationship between Harry and his son, old guard vs. new etc.

3. Consider Harry's (blatant? latent?) racism. How does it serve him? What does it protect him from?

4. How does the state Florida become a character of the story? How does it comfort him? How does it antagonize him?

5. SUPER BIG THESIS MATERIAL - compare the interplay of sex and money in Rabbit is Rich with the interplay of sex and death in Rabbit at Rest.

6. Unpack the parade scene. How is the parade a representation of Harry's own life? (hint: short, ridiculous, desperately trying to own a character he's deemed important...)