Man in the Middle
November 8, 2012
As the long election night began to take shape, all eyes remained fixed on the swing states. Some were on the Eastern Seaboard (Florida, Virginia), others in the West (Colorado, Nevada). In most cases the outcome hinged on the marshaling of dependable blocs of voters.
But in the heartland “battlegrounds” — Ohio, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin — the calculation seemed more complicated. The populations in these states are not especially diverse, but they seem, time and again, to yield the richest harvest of “independent voters,” so often depicted as paragons of the national character — thrifty, family-oriented, churchgoing — especially if they are white males of Protestant stock, each an Everyman caught in the tangle of post-industrial America, a “man in the middle,” as John Updike puts it in “Rabbit Redux.” Published in 1971 and set in 1969 — the year of Chappaquiddick and the moon landing, the beginning of Richard Nixon’s presidency — it remains the most illuminating and prophetic of modern political novels, though on the surface it seems not about politics at all.
There are no candidates or campaigns in “Rabbit Redux,” no demagogues or ward bosses. It bears no resemblance to “All the King’s Men” or “The Last Hurrah.” Updike’s subject is instead the politicization of everyday life. The novel’s working-class hero, an imagined inhabitant of Reading, Pa. — called Brewer in the novel — senses that the world he had known, of placid neighborhoods where “the doors would slam and the games begin again,” with “a war being fought across oceans just so he could spin out his days in such happiness,” is changing, almost daily, and he’s powerless to stop it.
“I don’t think about politics,” Harry Angstrom (nicknamed Rabbit in his high school basketball days) insists during a mealtime quarrel. “That’s one of my Goddam precious American rights.” But he becomes apoplectic when the topic is the Vietnam War, which he supports with a worshipper’s faith. “America is beyond power, it acts as in a dream, as a face of God,” he believes. “Wherever America is, there is freedom, and wherever America is not, madness rules with chains, darkness strangles millions.” He defiantly puts a flag decal on his car, as potent a symbol to him as the flag the Apollo 11 astronauts plant on the moon.
The moon landing is replayed in the pages of “Rabbit Redux” among the flooding images of the nightly news: “Vietnam death count, race riots probably somewhere.” Updike doesn’t simply record all these facts. He elevates them through a kind of social realist poetry, what John Dos Passos might have written if he had the help of T. S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens: “Men emerge pale from the little printing plant at four sharp, ghosts for an instant, blinking, until the outdoor light overcomes the look of constant indoor light clinging to them,” the novel begins, Updike’s celebrated pointillism refreshing a moribund cityscape: “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.” Harry, one of the lumpen pale men, works as a linotypist at Verity Press at a time when Verity and all the moral verities that undergird Rust Belt America seem to be corroding.
Someone well acquainted with Reading-Brewer is John D. Forester Jr., news editor of The Reading Eagle. He was on its staff in 1969 and got to know Updike, who in his teens had been a copy boy at the paper and had since kept up with the city’s changes, filing stories and photos in the archive he kept. The car dealership owned by Harry Angstrom’s father-in-law is “in real life, Lancaster Avenue, which was lined in those days with large, successful dealerships and flanked by factories and a blue-collar neighborhood called Millmont,” Forester told me in an e-mail, adding that now the avenue is full of “empty showrooms, a smattering of vacant lots and empty factories.”
The Angstroms, father and son, are forerunners of those who would later be called Reagan Democrats. Earl, rescued first by the New Deal and then by the Great Society, swears by Medicare. “I’ve been paying in since ’66, it’s like a ton of anxiety rolled off my chest,” he tells his son over a Schlitz after work. “There’s no medical expense can break us now. They called L.B.J. every name in the book but believe me he did a lot of good for the little man.”
Rabbit too is a loyal Democrat. “I’m a conservative,” he tells a policeman at a crime scene. “I voted for Hubert Humphrey.” Today the formulation seems off-key. But Updike got it right. Humphrey indeed carried Reading in 1968. “The city in those days was largely Democrat in registration,” Forester pointed out, though he added, “the typical Democrat here would be a Republican anywhere else.”
But Rabbit’s politics are getting complicated, because of race. “The bus has too many Negroes,” he observes on the ride to his suburban tract house. “They’ve been here all along,” of course. And in fact, even in 1969, they made up only 6.6 percent of Reading’s population. But to Rabbit they seem a “strange race” of invaders. Unlike the African-Americans who were once half-invisible on Brewer’s downtown streets, who “ just looked” when he walked by, those he meets now seem to think the city belongs to them no less than to him.
When Verity switches over from hot type to offset, jobs will be lost, including Harry’s. “We can keep a few men on, retrain them to the computer tape,” the boss explains. “We’ve worked the deal out with the union.” Under seniority provisions, Earl Angstrom is safe, but his son is not. The boss would prefer to release an African-American, but “we’d have every do-good outfit in the city on our necks.” What’s unmentioned is the rewards of patronage Harry has enjoyed for a decade — it was his father, in the hallowed union tradition, who got him the job.
There is further worry in a new subdivision outside the city, where Rabbit lives. “This is a decent white neighborhood,” he is admonished, menacingly, by a fellow resident, a Vietnam vet distraught by the goings-on in the Angstrom household. Another neighbor, higher up the socioeconomic ladder — “I’m in computers, the hardware end” — softens the message. “White neighborhood isn’t exactly the point, we’d welcome a self-respecting black family, I went to school with blacks and I’d work right beside one any day of the week.”
The idioms have changed, slightly, but the passions have not, as we were reminded this election year.
John Updike visited The New York Times a week before Election Day in 2008. Whom, I asked him, would Rabbit Angstrom most likely vote for? “I’m so for Obama,” Updike replied, “that I can’t imagine creating a character who wouldn’t vote for him.” And yet in “Rabbit at Rest” — the last novel in the cycle, which concludes with the hero’s death — we discover he cast his final vote for George H. W. Bush. When I reminded Updike of this, he looked startled. But he was right about 2008. Obama carried Reading that year, and he did it again on Nov. 6. The finally tally, John Forester said, “was 17,248 for Obama, and 3,740 for Romney.” Why the lopsided outcome? Because the city’s population has indeed changed, though not in the way Rabbit foresaw. Nearly 60 percent of its population is now Hispanic. Rabbit, more open-minded than he first appears, would have made his peace, just as he did in 1969. “I love my country,” he avows, “and can’t stand to have it knocked,” even if it has become something he no longer recognizes.
Sam Tanenhaus is the editor of the Book Review.
THE NEW YORK TIMES