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John Updike: Licks of Love.

New York. Knopf. 2000. 359 pages $25. ISBN 0-375-41113-5

"LICKS OF LOVE" is the title of the novella that dominates John Updike's new short-story collection. This final narrative picks up the Angstrom clan nine years after their flawed patriarch breathed his last. Joseph Street in Brewer now houses sixty-three-year-old Janice, Rabbit's widow; Nelson, Rabbit's son; and cuck-old Ronnie Harrison, Janice's second husband, he whose former wife became the long-term apple of Rabbit's eye. Ruth Leonard, the local nymphomaniac, is dead, and the illegitimate daughter she had with Rabbit has just been told that the rodent is her father. Naturally, Annabelle comes calling on Janice in order to manage a family connection and to attach herself to this branch of the magnetic chain of humanity. Strawberry marks on backs or shoulders are scarce, but acrimony is plentiful as Annabelle, sans gypsy ancestress, snags a friendship with Nelson and ultimately a relationship with one of his friends.

Continuing in the Puritan vein of the American Renaissance, Hawthorne in particular, they all at times smart, rage, or otherwise marinate in decades of misdeeds and gloomy wrong. So Rabbit's death cannot be without its postscript. But Updike suffers as much as Hawthorne did from the same problems of creating "romance" in such a young country and with such thin background in historical time. Unfortunately, without mystery, the Stuarts, or the French Revolution, Updike turns out stereotypical characters reminiscent of case studies in a social worker's files. They come across as anecdotal figures drawn from letters to Dear Abby. Perhaps this is why Nelson, also cuckolded by his father, has become a "mental health counselor" who wears "a kind of social worker's uniform."

As I read Licks of Love, other books and chapters in American literature and sociology came to mind. I thought of Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio and David Riesman's Lonely Crowd. From the opening group of short stories to the novella that usurps the collection, I felt Winesburg's gravity pulling Licks of Love into a familiar American solar system moving around a black sun. Intertextuality at its best. Olinger and the Dutch farm country of eastern Pennsylvania began to feel like it was littered with the "knurled apples" in Anderson's vignettes. I also recalled Roth's Neil Klugman in Goodbye, Columbus struggling with the three-headed monster of Capitalism, Social Stratification, and Sexuality. Caught up in the gaze of this American Cyclops, Neil was transfixed by the biggest head of them all, the one-eyed Jack.

Rabbit's surviving son and literary allusionist, Nelson, wants members of his clan to see American Beauty (1999). After viewing the film, Pru, Nelson's ex-wife, says, "I think that [the sex scene between Kevin Spacey and Mena Suvari] was unrealistic, too. Most men would have just screwed her anyway." Even in death Rabbit haunts his surviving family members and friends. His substantial presence inflated by his absence made me feel that rabbits should be treated like coyotes were in Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America. Aging has not been kind to these characters. Getting and staying interested in them tends to exhaust the lingering curiosity that motivates readers of the earlier novels to find out how these contemporary velveteen rabbits are moving through time. In many ways, Updike's fourth in the series, Rabbit at Rest (1990), brought his masterwork to a satisfying close.

This latest sequel to Updike's spate of burrowing-mammal books tends to decelerate in terms of impact like the third sequel of an initially popular film. It often feels like yet another episode of "Hares of Our Lives." The combination of interest and respect that Licks of Love generates feels like a Yankee version of the regard felt by the townspeople who went to look into Emily Grierson's home at the end of Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily." Death and aging run like a leitmotiv throughout the collection. The generational picture of Updike's sex-besotted or sex-wounded "grotesques" has led to a predictable early old age for them all. They are as emotionally bereft and relationally baffled as the generation Gertrude Stein labeled "lost."

Updike's characters stumble at the starting gate and never recover. They haven't moved through the cycle of life growing and developing. They are all stuck in time, bugs in amber, artifacts of anxiety, stress, and depression. Their lives are as meaningless as they have found themselves to be. They exist and provide the "hell" that Sartre declared was other people in his play No Exit. The only Eros they know is sexual, and they are never more animated and eloquent than when they are in heat. No wonder Nelson wants them to see American Beauty and Updike portrays them as misunderstanding it.

They trust no one, even themselves. Alienated from others and without any genuine autonomy, they wallow in doubt and shame. Guilt so galvanizes them with inanition that new initiatives become second editions of the defenses that failed them in the past. Inferiority replaces industry as energy drained by depression turns against them in the form of self-devaluation. Their failure as companions is replaced by their failure as spouses, which itself is followed by their failure as parents as they reproduce replicas of their dysfunctional selves. Their social roles are striated with confusion, as they cannot embody nor integrate any identity offered to them. Incapable of intimacy, they stay sealed in their permanent isolation, deprived of the dynamic necessary for the growth that intimacy provides. They are stagnant. Their experience of generativity which came accidentally in the form of pregnancy and birth confirmed the magic in the wand and provided yet another challenge to their capacity for separation, abandonment, and loss.

Thus we have this galaxy of predictable characters in Licks of Love: portraits of despair, aliens from the land of maturity, hopelessness gathering together to substitute proximity for intimacy, sex for love, irritability and defensive redneck conservatism for ego integrity. They face their fear of the grim reaper with disingenuous forms of denial. Nonetheless, Licks of Love ends on a fragile note of optimism that someone in the splintering barrel would survive the worm and not be so grotesquely unhappy. Thus, when Annabelle tells Nelson that she is seeing Billy, he balks at her faith in his old friend's thinking she is wonderful merely because she was able to admit her sexual abuse in front of him and Nelson. "Well, is that a good reason--?" Nelson questions. "Nelson," Annabelle responds, "no reason is perfect. But then neither are we." Mrs. Hopewell in Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People" could not have said it better.
Ronald Curran
University of Pittsburgh
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Author:Curran, Ronald
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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