Reality doesn’t exist, time doesn’t exist, personality doesn’t exist.
God was the omniscient author, but he died; now no one knows the plot,
and since our reality lacks the sanction of a creator,
there’s no guarantee as to the authenticity of the received version.
This has to do with books, and reading, too.
You see, I was walking at night in the dream, a book in my hands.
Or, more exactly, I had a dream about the original hardbound of Rabbit Redux, the John Updike novel, and then there was also the whole thing with the sadness of my recently deceased brother-in-law Bill to complicate it all, what this is really about.
You know, Rabbit Redux, the second in the Rabbit series of four books that examine the protagonist Rabbit Angstrom’s life at ten-year or so intervals in contemporary American history. And, if you remember, all the original jackets for the hardbounds more or less matched (or three did), working on a rather mechanical geometric pattern of repeated thin horizontal stripes, the cover for Rabbit Redux maybe the most successful of the series to use that motif. The stripes there alternated red, white, and blue, with an inserted central circle of more stripes staggering the overall pattern, the title and author’s name in bold white on black within; up in one corner hangs a perfectly round moon—one half shadowy, the other lit and showing the luminous craggy gray of the lunar surface.
It was most appropriate, as the novel does find Updike’s ex-high school basketball star, Rabbit, separated from his wife now in 1969 and working in a cluttered linotype print shop with his father and soon turning his tacky little tract house into more or less an impromptu four-person commune. It becomes the home to a runaway flower-child in a Porsche and a pretty crazed Vietnam-vet black power activist shouting the automatic, but always effectively searing, slogans of the day, with Rabbit’s confused thirteen-year-old son, who Rabbit is now raising on his own, alternatingly scared of then fascinated with the guy. That’s the plot in simplest terms, yet on another level the book sometimes can come across as a probing commentary on the entire sixties era, the cover itself a good indication of that. The ominously staggered bands of specifically red, white, and blue in the design certainly do echo the essence of the time, when the very idea of America was in flux; back then the once-traditional patriotic stripes did get staggered, all right, and capping off the turbulent decade was definitely the metaphysical sight (vision?) of human beings clomping around on the moon in silvery space suits and planting a stiffened American flag somewhere out there in the starry blackness of what you might call the forever of the universe, surely a good indication of how small the confused, thoroughly indulgent country of ours truly was in 1969, when considered in the much larger scheme of galactic time and said ever-expanding universe.
Actually, I think I once heard that John Updike designed his book covers himself, which makes sense. I mean, after he finished Harvard, coming there as a shy, gangly Pennsylvania high school kid on academic scholarship (with a nervous stammer, apparently), a guy who dazzled everybody with his brilliance on two fronts as an undergrad, both literary and artistic, he, already a proficient cartoonist, graduated summa cum laude (reportedly an uncommon feat at all-male Harvard in those days before grade inflation, no more than a handful of students in each class), to then go on for a year of study at the Ruskin School of Art at Oxford. That he completed such study was a fact I admittedly knew only because it was always included in the short biography of the author that Knopf would insert on the last page of their hardbounds along with “A Note on the Type”—i.e., “The text of this book was set in Janson” and the rest of that baloney (a touch that used to come across as somewhat unnecessarily snooty to me, but which today I appreciate, when more and more books are electronic offerings, messily presented on a tiny glowing screen and sorely devoid of care or interest in something as aesthetic as the, well, typeface).
Anyway, about the dream.
As said, I was walking. Or, I seem to have been wandering the scruffy backstreets in some foreign city. And it seemed to be one of the cities that I knew quite well, because as a newspaper correspondent/reporter I had spent considerable time in many foreign cities, though if you asked me the specific one, in my reconstructing the dream, I couldn’t be absolutely certain where it was—Buenos Aires or Istanbul or Paris, even spooky Hong Kong or spookier Bombay, for that matter, though I suppose all those cities do have narrow labyrinthine backstreets, the kind with glowing lampposts and shops with galvanized roll-down shutters padlocked tight, where you do, in fact, get lost when wandering such empty ways alone at night. And, no, I had no idea exactly where I was heading to in the dream and, as metamorphosing will have it in any nighttime imagining, I simply seemed to be lost and utterly directionless, coming to a corner and looking down one shadowy street, narrow and with lumpy cobbles like turtle shells, wondering if I should turn that way in order to finally get back to my hotel after so much walking, then maybe deciding against it and continuing on for a while, my Reeboks thumping, reaching another corner and my looking down another street there, trying to decide if possibly it would be the right one . . . until I realized I was holding something.
I stopped, then stepped a couple of paces toward the curb, slowly, for a better look under a streetlamp, I guess.
I stared at it there in my hands, a darkened slab, and I had to adjust it some to get the buttery yellow illumination just right over my shoulder, the shadow of me on the pavement an elongated silhouette; and there it was, a book.
Maybe a bony cat (sleek black or ghostly gray or vividly tiger-striped—who knows?) passed slinkily by, or maybe from somewhere nearby in that maze of streets I heard what sounded like a sputtering lorry going through its grinding gears, loud but then softer and softer, until everything was quiet again—or more than that and beyond quiet.
I adjusted the book some more, tilting it this way and that, and I now could see clearly what it was.
A hardbound copy, hefty at four hundred pages or so, and complete with the paper jacket, as described, definitely a 1971 edition—which meant a first, no doubt—of Rabbit Redux.
I stared at it, then stared longer. I flipped it over and examined the back where there were just those stripes continued, no rubric or puffing blurbs, which, when you think of it, a masterful writer like Updike, in a lofty class of his own, obviously didn’t need; then I looked at the front of the cover again, even longer now.
Borges once said something along the lines of this: how dreaming and wakefulness are the pages of a single book, and to read those pages in order is to live, and to leaf through them at random, to dream.
Which I know sounds like but another Borgesian conundrum. However, like any Borgesian conundrum it is an observation that does make uncanny sense before it makes what we usually associate with the premise of something making sense, so in this case, upon waking the next morning after the dream, I strained to put in order the best I could the random pages of the oneiric (what a word!) story line.
From much practice, I knew that to remember one’s dreams when you first come out of sleep—lying there washed ashore on the damp, twisted sheets, with dawn tentatively struggling to pinken outside the bedroom windows and the ceiling fan chug-chugging around, so slow, so slow—it is best to keep your eyes shut, therefore denying wakefulness its full domain for a few moments, to see if you can reasonably recall the fragile details that will soon inevitably dissolve into the incorporeality of hopeless oblivion altogether. So I attempted—step by step, which is to say fragment of image by fading fragment of image—to hold onto at least some of the lingering scenario; and there was the maze of backstreets in a foreign city, and there was the light glowing atop the old lamppost I was standing under, and there was, very, very clearly, a hardbound copy of Rabbit Redux with its paper wraparound jacket a perfect representation of the first-edition design. To be honest, as soon as I hit on that, the look of the book, I was puzzled, and—eyes still closed and try as I might—I was unable to reconstruct much more than the single scene from this pretty odd dream, knowing there must have been some organizing narrative to it, now gone forever. (What was I doing wandering like that? Where was I going with the book?) I suppose I told myself that, if nothing else, I’d been lucky to salvage as much as I had.
But the dream lingered in my mind, and I went through the next few days wondering, above all, why I had been carrying that particular book, Rabbit Redux.
For the life of me, I couldn’t figure what triggered it all, or, more to the point, how a copy of Rabbit Redux had ended up there in the dream.
I suspect I hadn’t read the novel since it had first been published. That was long ago, during the time I was barely managing to survive a misapplied year of literature study and graduate school out at UCLA. Back then I found myself reading a lot of books on my own rather than submitting to what soon became—for me, anyway—the meaningless droning on and on of everybody from the nerdy fellow grad students to the painfully pompous professors in the endlessly soporific classroom discussions. I’d started work as a newspaper reporter for mid-size dailies right after graduating as an English major from a small liberal arts college in the sweet purple mountains of western Massachusetts, advancing through the usual line of alleged journalistic ascent from the police beat to the political beat to feature writing for the Sunday sections, yet before long I admitted to the truth I’d known all along: that books were my real love and I should be getting a PhD in literature. However, such conviction was promptly dampened when, the first semester at UCLA, I learned that graduate study in literature had surprisingly little to do with literature; instead, it was more a matter of the assembly-line training of more busy careerists (i.e., budding lit profs) for a future in academia of hustling to publish so-called scholarly articles (i.e., simplistic thinking clunkily jargonized) in journals that only they and nobody else ever read, as accompanied by the various grand pastimes of the profession, like securing treasured tenure and then taking smug satisfaction in voting down a junior colleague for similar promotion, or the sorry business of so-called colleagues backbiting one another to secure allegedly prime course-committee assignments, that sort of thing. By October I was already dodging classes, holing up for hours on end in a quiet carrel in one of the many nooks in the massive, handsomely Romanesque-architected Powell Library and working my way through the modern and contemporary novel shelves on my own. My interest tended toward French and Latin American fare; there, with the literary traditions unencumbered by the influence of the American pragmatism that did ceaselessly seep into our own national literature (such uptight, preachy rationality in our general thinking, the backbone of patriotic capitalism, probably originally launched by Ben Franklin way back and proceeding clear through to Rockefeller, Edison, and Ford, with robust, over-upbeat Teddy Roosevelt thrown in there somewhere along the way), yes, in foreign thought and literature there was definitely a substantial measure of wild daring—a certain don’t-give-a-damnism and full abandonment of poky deductive logic, if you will—in the validly metaphysical leaps being executed right on the page. Still, I couldn’t ignore making sure I paid at least some tribute to the work of our best contemporary fellow countrymen, too, maybe most significantly—in this case and as my own personal favorites at the time—the reigning triumvirate of “Johns”: startlingly luminescent John Cheever; and near-hallucinatory John Hawkes; and also the third John, chosen perhaps merely to prove to myself I wasn’t about to completely abandon traditional realism and could recognize an undeniable gift of lyrical language, rife with color and quick metaphor, as well as there always being a solidly constructed, character-driven plot, the whole package often topped off by shrewd observation concerning our rocky national life throughout the work of this writer, amazingly prolific in terms of sheer produce alone, not only stories and novels, but also some solid poetry and certifiably brilliant book-review criticism, somebody whose total lifetime word-count could hold its own with that of Balzac and even Tolstoy; indeed, the third of my “Johns”—John Hoyer Updike (I liked the sturdily down-home Protestant middle name, which stuck with me). And it was there in Powell Library where I spent my time while dodging classes. Or, more exactly, the many hours I logged there when not just enjoying leisurely strolling around the handsome rolling campus of so much fine brown brick and soothingly hissing fountains. I savored taking in the southern California sunshine, honey-hued and especially welcome to a guy like me from bleak and too-often shivering New England, not to mention those long walks providing plenty of opportunity for my big-league ogling of the packs of so many pure knock-outs of undergraduate girls in their shorts and the sort of skimpy elasticized tube tops that fortunately were the height of fashion then—to my eye, every one was a beauty who could have made a decent career of it if she’d wanted to just a few bus stops down Santa Monica Boulevard over in Hollywood proper (come on, I was a male not even twenty-five then). I must have read Rabbit Redux as soon as it came out, spotting it there on the recent acquisitions shelves right off the library’s cavernous lobby under its landmark central dome, where on such books you got just a ten-day loan. Of course, only the next several hours, right until closing time that day, was all I needed to excitedly read through it, probably skipping the usual masquerade of an edible dinner at some lousy fast-food place on my understandably meager grad student budget.
And I explain so much of that only to emphasize how it was such a long time ago and I hadn’t read the book in so many years. So why, in fact, did it turn up in the dream now, a very far-fetched nocturnal flipping through at random—even a reshuffling of—the pages of this life that are, without doubt, normally considered our current and tick-tockingly ongoing days, according to Borges’s apt observation just referenced?
I kept thinking about it.
It was the following Wednesday, at 12:05 am on the dot. (I noted this, because it was important.) I was wrapping up work editing at the horseshoe city desk there in the busy keyboard-clattering city newsroom (well, I ended up back East, after all, returning to the newspaper grind after my brief stint of California sunshine; it’s often been a tough go of it over the years, a complicated divorce and custody and visitation problems in the course of plenty of travel for me early on as a roving foreign-affairs reporter and then, more recently, the odd, long nighttime hours required when desk-editing for the morning edition, though with the kids all grown now and on relatively better terms with me, the family situation is not entirely as bad as it once was), and about to press the send button for the night’s final batch of edited news copy, it came to me.
In other words, the connection was made as to where I might have been heading with the book in the foreign city in the dream, my mission of sorts contained therein.
Man, how could I have missed it? And, of course, there was the way I had been recommending Rabbit Redux to my early-retired brother-in-law Bill only the summer before. It was when he was slowed down by the lung affliction that eventually took his life several months later, yet still somebody active enough and always an avid reader. Which is something that in itself maybe does demand a little further explanation, a guy like that of a solidly working-class background who did, unquestionably, appreciate books in a way that surely nobody I’d ever met in the wasteland of graduate school ever came anywhere close to showing such affection, Bill’s outright and unmitigated reading enthusiasm. My sister was somewhat well-known in her field, a history professor in Connecticut, and when she married Bill it seemed an odd arrangement, considering he had never as much as taken a single college course, enlisting in the Navy right after high school, and also how he’d been through a previous marriage and quite messy divorce, which for a while troubled considerably my good-hearted but oh-so-traditionally Irish-Catholic mother (she—for the best, I’d say—never lived long enough to have to witness my own marriage explode like the Hindenburg on a particularly bad day). But the problem of my sister being intent on marrying him was soon solved satisfactorily in my understanding mother’s kind blue eyes when Bill—an all-around good guy, lanky and prematurely gray-haired, very handsome, looking like he could have been a network anchorman—went uncomplainingly through the routine of adult-instruction catechism classes to convert; that meant that his first marriage, because it hadn’t been sanctioned before a Catholic altar, didn’t officially count, my mother decided. I doubt that Bill bought into much of what he certainly saw as all that hocus-pocus of the bleeding, luridly painted plaster statuary there in St. Clement’s, the local parish church, along with the clouding incense causing half the people to wheeze uncontrollably when the priest proceeded down the aisle and swung the silver censer their way; but it was true, Bill so much loved and dizzily respected my sister that he would do anything necessary to make spending the rest of his life with her a possibility. Natively bright, he read a lot of history, usually concerning military campaigns, and also fiction of the admittedly adventuresome type that a practical guy who had put in his three years shipboard in the Navy and liked to work outdoors with his chainsaw on weekends understandably would read, Jack London his all-time favorite (he could happily rhapsodize about the maybe subtly existential short story “To Build a Fire,” Bill having close to memorized the pages); there was also Hemingway, naturally, plus the better spy novelists such as Graham Greene and especially John Le Carré (the latter who more or less took the baton of that genre handed on to him by Greene and, overall, possibly made yet more out of it, until the end of the Cold War did devalue the whole currency of spy novels, or those based on that kind of pre–high-tech-era espionage, right?). After my divorce, whenever they would have me over to dinner, just the three of us together, I enjoyed talking about books with him, Bill and I often lingering over cocktails in the sort of open atrium of a den in their fine house out in the Connecticut woods and my sister doing the cooking and having to repeatedly call us to come and sit down for the meal; she would gently inform us that the salad was already on the table and her special baked lasagna, let’s say, would be served shortly:
“Come on, boys, it’s time to have dinner. Let’s see if we can forget books for just a few minutes, okay?”
“Don’t worry, and just relax, we’ll be there in a minute,” Bill might tell her.
He had lost one lung by the year before, his voice wheezingly raspy, but he never let it get him down, even while having to repeatedly toke from the bulky blue oxygen tank positioned there next to his maroon leather easy chair in the otherwise thoroughly airy room.
And one evening that summer the subject of Updike did come up. Bill said that he’d bought a general anthology of assorted modern short stories for fifty cents at a neighborhood garage sale the other day, read one in there by John Updike about a guy thinking of museums in relation to the various women dear to him in his life over the years.
“‘Museums and Women,’” I said, “I know the story, the title piece for one of his collections.”
“Yes, that’s it, it has such a simple title, ‘Museums and Women.’”
“A good story, all right,” I said.
“I really should read more of him,” Bill said. “I’ve heard his name so often, though I never really gave him a try. But after that story, I want to get my hands on plenty more of his work, for sure.”
I should explain that following his stint in the Navy, Bill went straight into a job in a print shop that did rotogravure, those colored advertising supplements on semi-glossy pages. At the time it was very solid employment, a strong union operation that guaranteed generous medical and retirement benefits of the sort that today would be unheard of, now after years of tirelessly continuing union-busting campaigns. (You know the deal on that, what began with a dyed-haired, rouge-cheeked excuse for an American president spouting pre-packaged lies with the considerable smarmy confidence that he’d earlier wielded in the many TV ads he formerly did for thieving conglomerate corporations, as his skewed reign in the Oval Office launched the gradual reduction of the resilient, once-proud working man or woman in these great United States to nothing more than a pathetic Wal-Mart shelf-stacker forced to wear a clownish blue sales smock, near tragically so.) In fact, for my brother-in-law there had always been plenty of time for reading, both in the Navy, with its long idle hours aboard a destroyer out there lazily plowing through the waves in the open sea, and then the print shop job, which often entailed simply sitting beside the rumbling press machine, book in hand, while it turned out the sheets and Bill looking over to the apparatus only now and then to make sure everything was running smoothly. Actually, he’d originally landed the well-paying job, the kind tough to get back then, through his father who had worked his entire life in the shop, and even before we eventually made our way into the dining room for dinner that evening I was already telling him that probably the Updike novel he should start with was Rabbit Redux ; I said he was sure to like it.
“Now that I think of it,” I told him, “it’s more than right up your alley, the main character a guy working in a print shop, with his father having worked there, too. Almost identical to how things happened for you. But maybe a little different, because in the Updike novel his father is working alongside him in the shop and not already retired like yours, they go to work together, all of it set in the crazy 1960s, when nobody was sure of anything, quite magically so, if that makes any sense.”
“Perfect,” he said. “I’ll find it, and thanks for the tip.”
That had been a year or so before. And it could have been the something that triggered what had been going on in the dream, I told myself, though, sadly, and what I knew all too well, was that Bill never did get to read the book. It’s the way things can happen when you’re approaching age seventy: one moment you’re getting by okay despite some controllable health problems, the next, everything is suddenly a total disaster. Bill went in for an operation to probingly test his remaining lung for cancer, and during the procedure the fleshy balloon of it imploded, permanently; Bill expired right there on the stainless-steel operating table under the glaring lights, the overpaid yuppie of a chief surgeon in his protecting green mask above him just blankly staring down at his botched work, calmly baffled.
So was that the Rabbit Redux connection, why it turned up in that dream?
I closed my eyes tighter, trying not to let what commonly passes for daytime with its associated complete charade of reality butt in.
Then I suppose what I did next was sort of crazy.
No, revise that—it was totally crazy.
You see, it was easy enough to find a copy of the book at the local library. The library was a quaint little affair, white clapboard under a multi-gabled roof, with abundant flower beds (really heavy on the spangled magenta gladiolus) that were meticulously maintained by the local “Lovin’ Spadeful Garden Club” (as announced by a stubby sign on a stake out front) in the Connecticut suburb where I now have a one-room bachelor’s apartment downtown; it’s located above what could be among the last of the independent drugstores, just across the street from the frilled, green-and-yellow railroad station and the commuter line into Manhattan, where I work for the large daily newspaper (no, not the very prestigious one, but one that does survive with a respectably solid weekday circulation, though the Sunday edition appears to be heading for the well-worn print-journalism chopping block). I once read in an interview with Updike—who by that point wasn’t any stammering scholarship boy but an elegant man of letters, slim, stylishly coiffed, Updike with his knowing, pleasantly leering smile a bona fide celebrity—yes, I once read in maybe the Paris Review interview or possibly one in Playboy how his ultimate hope in literary life would simply be to have a teenage kid someday bicycle to a local library (I pictured an old blue-enameled Columbia balloon-tire model) and in the stacks come upon the row of his books (which by the end of his career did become several well-packed rows) and for there to be at least something in there that the kid would pull out and then take home to read with a sense of excitement and genuine discovery. The copy on hand at my library had no jacket, only a worn, badly faded red cloth binding. On the yellowing inside endpaper up front was one of those pad-size checkout-and-due-date inserts, old, and seeing as this small library hadn’t completely converted to a computerized system even at this late stage of the technological game, I noticed that the last time the novel had been checked out was over a half-dozen years before, and the time before that—day and month faintly indicated in purple stamping—almost a good twelve years earlier. So much for a kid in jeans and a baggy sweatshirt idyllically bicycling there some sunny late afternoon to discover it, I thought, but, if nothing else, I had bravely broken the losing streak.
And I now had it in hand, but not to just reread it again, or not simply to do so with the fond memories of those enjoyable long-lost hours in Powell Library in Westwood when I’d first gotten the other copy with its fresh, crisp jacket, what turned up in the dream, because, you see, I instantly knew at last what I had to do, crazy or no.
I mean, did I ever.
However, perhaps it wasn’t crazy, and probably it made as much sense as anything else. For example, the craziness—or colossal unfairness—of my brother-in-law so happy with my sister and how they had found each other somewhat later in life (even when we would all get together as couples when my marriage had still been afloat, for a multiplex movie or going to a restaurant, he, athletic, deep-voiced guy that he was before the illness, would sometimes get weepy to pull me aside and confess how my sister was the best thing that had ever happened to him in his life, he sometimes couldn’t believe it had happened to him; and now the entirety of that to have been taken away from him and away from my sister, too, needless to add, the sudden and utter evanescence of such strong, half-transcendent love sacrificed to a bungling doctor’s mistake and as gone as a blown dandelion puff, even a faded robin’s eggshell from a vanished and forgotten couple of springtimes ago), true, like so much in the world that initially seems like absolute craziness, I proceeded with my plan. And while just how this whole thing would work was unclear early on, I knew it was going well by the time I got into the book, at about page sixty or so. Or, it worked so smoothly that I could have been doing it all of my proverbial life, reading aloud from Rabbit Redux to my departed brother-in-law Bill like this. I tried to give the best modulation of voice, dramatic without overdoing it in my occasional emphasis, the way you might perform when called upon to read aloud in a grade school class when a kid, as my tongue glided confidently over the lively, revealing dialogue and, better, the aforementioned fine Updikean descriptions that could make one at last fully appreciate, almost treasure, the many everyday surroundings usually just taken for granted in life—man, what a full, colloquially lyrical symphony that rich prose of his could be, and hopefully my presentation did justice to such gifts.
It took a little time for the narrative to develop, admittedly. There is the opening scene of Rabbit and his father in a crummy local bar in a nowheresville of southeastern Pennsylvania after quitting-time at the print shop, and then a scene of Rabbit (a.k.a. Harry Angstrom) back home later on with his kid, Nelson, who has no interest in sports, much to ex-athlete Rabbit’s dismay, as the two of them eat tasteless TV dinners together that evening while their mother is obviously off somewhere in her steamy current affair with the car salesman Charlie who works with her at her father’s dealership; nevertheless, the story did soon turn especially interesting, for Bill, anyway, when Updike goes into the details of Rabbit’s print-shop job as a linotypist. I cleared my throat and continued on while Bill listened:
The machine stands tall and warm above him, mothering, muttering, a temperamental thousand-parted survival from the golden age of machinery, the Srots tray is on his right hand; the Star Quadder and the mold disc and the slug tray on his left; a green shaded light bulb at the level of his eyes. Above this the machine shoulders into shadow like a thunderhead, its matrix return rod spiraling idly, all these rustling sighing tons of intricately keyed mass waiting for the feather touch of his intelligence. Behind the modal disc the molten lead waits; sometimes when there is a jam the lead squirts hot out. Harry has been burned. But the machine is a baby; its demands though inflexible are few, and once these demands are met obedience automatically follows. There is no problem of fidelity. Do for it and it does for you. And Harry loves the light here. It is cream to his eyes, the even bluish light that nowhere casts a shadow, light so calm and fine you can—
“Wait a minute,” Bill said.
“You don’t like it?”
“Sure I do, I love it.”
“Then what?” I asked.
“It’s almost unbelievable what he knows about this, the print trade.”
“He’s got it wrong?”
“No, amazingly, he’s got it right,” Bill said, smiling.
I think I tried to explain that I suspect Updike did a lot of research, also sometimes hired somebody to do some of the legwork for him in such research, but, of course and alas, the prose was all his own, that dazzling syllabic magic he never failed to wield, always. Which didn’t seem the primary interest for a practical guy like Bill, who himself had worked in a print shop and who I knew would appreciate the book on that count alone, granting that he’d never gotten the chance to read it while alive; I continued on.
When I came to the uncomfortable part where Rabbit figures out and confirms that his wife is having an affair with the car salesman—a guy of Greek descent named Charlie with receding hair coated with a lot of glossy Vitalis, a relaxed, likable sort who sometimes baits Rabbit into having friendly arguments that go nowhere about the Vietnam War, which Rabbit backs, and Charlie even joking about the American flag decal on Rabbit’s old Falcon’s rear window—by then Bill did seem caught up in the plot and also the language, rather than merely being amazed at the accuracy of the work-related details.
“Wow, the guy can write,” Bill said.
“I told you you’d like it.”
“Especially the great dialogue,” he said.
“Now you’re talking.”
“Or now he’s got them talking,” he said.
“There you go.”
In mutual appreciation, we both laughed a little now.
I continued on some more, and it was going well.
There’s nothing better than recommending a book to somebody and having them really like it, and there was so much to read to him.
There were sequences like this, where Rabbit—to repeat, that was Harry Angstrom’s old sports nickname when a local high school basketball star, an ever-so-quick, outside-pump-shot expert—takes up an invitation from a black co-worker at the print shop, Buchanan, to go to a local bar one Saturday night in a black neighborhood in their Pennsylvania town, and there Rabbit first meets up with the aspiring black power activist, Skeeter, and the runaway rich white girl from Connecticut, Jill, all of them at a table in the funky place; this pale, ethereal Jill—an Ophelia-like wannabe hippie trying to act tough and brave, though obviously fragile, scared of a lot in her shaky life at eighteen—has an exchange with Rabbit’s worker buddy, the burly Buchanan, it all sparked by Rabbit pretty stupidly delivering a noisy speech to the group about his support of the Vietnam War; I read it aloud:
Rabbit goes on, feeling himself get rabid: “I guess I don’t much believe in college kids or the Viet Cong. I don’t think they have any answers. I think they’re minorities trying to bring down everything that works. Halfway isn’t all the way but it’s better than no way.”
Buchanan smooths on frantically. His upper lip is bubbling with sweat under his slit of a mustache: “I agree ninety-nine percent. Enlightened self-interest is a phrase I like. The way I see it enlightened self-interest is about the best we’re going to get down here. I don’t buy pie in the sky whoever is slicing it. These young ones like Skeeter say all power to the people, you look around for the people, the only people around is them.”
“Because of Toms like you,” Jill says.
Buchanan blinks. His voice goes deeper, hurt. “I ain’t no Tom, girl. That kind of talk doesn’t help any of us. That kind of talk just shows how young you are. What I am is a man trying to get from Point A to Point B, from the cradle to the grave hurting the fewest people as I can. Just like Harry here, if you’d ask him.”
As with so many of the passages now, it struck a deep note with Bill, his then asking me to read it to him once more.
“Go back some,” Bill said, rather softly.
“Just give it to me again, when Rabbit starts with that talk about not liking the Viet Cong or college kids either. There’s a lot to think about there, how it gets at the way, I hate to say it, plenty of working guys I knew felt back then.”
It was going so well that it didn’t even seem to matter in the least that Bill was, of course, dead, that there was such major sorrow in that.
I continued reading aloud to him.
It admittedly turned slow as Updike does get a bit carried away with maybe just altogether too much . . .
12. (actually not 13. yet, and with the previously alluded to Borgesian
page-shuffling, sometimes that can happen; let me try again:)
It admittedly turned slow as Updike does get a bit carried away with maybe just altogether too much (that’s better) sixties social commentary; to be honest, the narrative gums down to a putter in some sections after Skeeter has been living in the house with Rabbit and his son and Jill for a while. On the lam from a drug charge, jittery Skeeter decides to have nightly political-consciousness-raising sessions (miniature teach-ins) in the living room with the group; there’s a lot of rambling discussion, possibly bordering on page-filler, with a rehashing of the writing of Frederick Douglass and also Soul on Ice, Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver’s fiery, visceral autobiography (reading it myself in the sixties, I liked it better than Malcolm X’s sometimes too-preachy life story, as good as that was), but I suppose those passages do have a historical purpose in the novel, and everybody was reading Cleaver in 1969, it goes without saying, so it’s fitting to have talk of it.
Nevertheless, and slow spots notwithstanding, I kept reading.
Or I did until, the big snag eventually arose when, odder than anything else so far, I realized that Bill wasn’t really listening anymore. I raised my voice some in the recitation for a few pages, but to no avail.
He wasn’t paying any attention to me whatsoever.
And he no longer interrupted me with follow-up questions, because—strangely, though natural as could be, too—it seemed that John Updike had somehow appeared on the scene without my noticing it. Yes, Bill all but ignored me now and he spoke only to Updike, who, though having passed away several years prior at age seventy-six, was himself now physically there as well and sitting around with us, no question about it. To tell the truth, the two of them hit it off immediately, both being the tall, easy-going guys who smiled a lot that they were, a camaraderie of demeanor, yet there probably was something else besides that, much more important, which they shared in common—a past with serious health concerns and the fact that each had incurred and then died of lung problems.
Updike talked to Bill about his lung cancer that, according to his detailed recounting now, had snuck up on him. He explained how he admittedly chain-smoked when young, a predictable writer’s vice throughout the long hours of composition, but pretty early on he switched to little dark cigarillo sticks, thinking they were healthier because he smoked fewer of them, a major mistake, he conceded. With a relaxed and charming way about him—that smile, the sparkling eyes and the shaggy gray brows bobbing as he spoke, such a distinctive long nose, too (noticeably pitted in later life, when seen up close, plus the brownish front teeth not looking too good either, the mellowing flaws of a man his age), Updike said the first thought that came to mind after he received his positive diagnosis from the oncologist at Mass General, Stage IV, no less, was an immediate picturing of the black-and-white photo of himself in Time magazine when young, sitting there at his old Smith Corona manual typewriter in the little rented office where he used to go to write every day in Ipswich, Mass., a lit, half-smoked Camel in the ashtray and giant clouds of cigarette smoke billowing thick around him, nearly swallowing him whole; it was a shot often used in publicity, he explained.
“Later in life,” he said, “I thought I was lucky to have gotten off the way I thought I had, having been wise enough to finally kick the habit at fifty or so, including those cigarillos, but when it comes to cancer nobody ever does get off that easy and really escapes, I suppose.”
He shook his head, smiled at his mistake.
“Don’t blame yourself, man,” Bill said, now shaking his head. “And the real problem was that nobody ever told us that kind of thing was bad for us when we were young. You can pick up an old copy of Life magazine from the fifties and Camels or Luckies are advertised by some grinning matinee idol or famous baseball star as somehow being healthy for you, if you can believe it. Not that it was cancer that finally did me in, but I think I was heading toward that, too, having been a heavy smoker myself early on. The real issue for me was that with my having worked in a print shop, rotogravure, I suspect I inhaled more than my share of the wrong kind of fumes during my time there, and those acidic chemicals used in the process were pure uncut poison, all right, the emphysema compounding, which I realized too late and after every tired and increasingly labored breath over the years. Then I went in for the surgery, a complicated, so-called exploratory biopsy testing, to see if a spot that showed up on an x-ray of my remaining lung was an indication of incipient cancer—which it wasn’t, apparently—though that biopsy was my downfall, because either my system couldn’t handle the stress or the surgeon didn’t know what the hell he was doing and there was no need for it in the first place, other than jacking up the hospital’s gross-profit figures, most likely, to pay for the neverending TV advertising that doctors and hospitals shamelessly indulge in today. I didn’t survive it.”
“Sorry to hear that, really sorry,” Updike said. “And, let me tell you, I can totally sympathize, though you definitely went through something much more than I did with that exploratory biopsy. And all I know about is the simple lung biopsy, the outpatient procedure and the long needle probing around while you’re just half anesthetized, but that alone is its own kind of pure medieval torture and then some. The procedure was almost worse than the disease itself, I’d sometimes think in the course of the full half-dozen or more of them they made me endure.”
“I hear you, man,” Bill said.
They shook their heads in mutual commiseration, now both smiling.
To be frank, it was as if I wasn’t even there with them, or, ironically, I was the one who had disappeared; they wanted to talk only to each other, guy to guy.
And I think what I was learning was that literature, or any variety of art, as important as it can be in our lives—the obsession with it for any of us, even in our dreams—has to take a back seat—one in the farthest corner of the rear compartment of a cramped and body-rotted vintage little Fiat two-door, I’d say—when put up against personal issues in the actuality of life, like, true, my past family-man woes or an add-up-to-nothing bust of a career, or, beyond true, a serious illness and the long and incomprehensibly enormous darkness of the grave awaiting us all.
I just let them talk.
On the other hand, maybe John Updike didn’t show up, maybe all that stuff about my brother-in-law Bill and Rabbit Redux, and that sequence of me going to the local library, too, to find a copy of it to read to him, hadn’t happened—yet.
But the novel was in my hands.
Or to put it another way: Why not?
I closed my eyes tighter still to reconstruct the dream, I looked at the book’s cover again, the design of red, white, and blue horizontal stripes, as I stood there under the streetlamp amid the tiny cobbled streets and alleyways. I was now sure at last that it was, in fact, Istanbul (not the newer part of the city on that opposite side of the glassy black Bosphorous, Europeanized, but the scruffy, aptly named Old City not far from the delicate spires of Sultanahmet Mosque), and in Istanbul there were so many stray cats, the city was nothing short of famous for having a population of stray cats, reportedly two or three times the human people-count or something, therefore my having seen a cat earlier provided additional evidence of the location. I could hear the atonal sounds of the horns of freighter ships in the empty night, it seemed, I could smell the sea and at night even the stink of rotting fish over by the fish market there along the docks beside the graceful span—painted a bright glossy blue and adorned with complicated ironwork arabesques—of the wide Galata Bridge.
Standing there under the streetlamp in the dream, I looked even longer at the copy of Rabbit Redux in my hands.
I mean, I really did.
18 (and 19, 16, 15, 13, 17, 21, even 33 or 239 or 103, etc.—pick whatever order you like).
All of which is to say, books, and reading itself, are such absolutely amazing things, no?