Lehigh University, Allentown, PA
This paper was originally delivered by Professor Jack De Bellis at "A Symposium on Contemporary American Fiction Featuring T. Coraghessan Boyle," held at Boyle's alma mater, the State University of New York at Potsdam, on September 30, 1995.
It is reproduced here with the gracious permission of the author. Professor De Bellis is also the author of The John Updike Encyclopedia.
My sincere thanks to Miriam Hardin
for providing us with the missing link to Professor De Bellis and to the
author for generously allowing us to share his previously unpublished paper.
When interviewed by Charles Samuels for the Paris Review in 1968, John Updike acknowledged that Beatrix Potter's "Tale of Peter Rabbit" underlay Rabbit, Run: Brewer, he identified as "the flowerpot city, the flowerpot that Mr. McGregor slips over Peter Rabbit." Rabbit Angstrom, the hero of the four novels of the "Rabbit" Saga, is a "rabbit" in sexual zeal and vegetarian diet, and other incidental imagery; this inter-textual "fable with satiric overtones," as Larry Taylor in Pastoral and Anti-Pastoral Patterns in John Updike's Fiction has called it, is a commonplace of Rabbit, Run commentary. But it has never been applied to the entire saga, which Updike collectively calls Rabbit Angstrom.
Rabbit, Run opens with Rabbit running from his Pennsylvania family toward the garden of the South, rationalizing that he seeks "the thing that wants him to find it", but in reality, prompted by a sense that he has been supplanted in his mother's affection by his son Nelson. Updike presents Rabbit's intuition in a "kitchen scene" in which Rabbit peers through his parents' kitchen window and discovers them feeding his son. He scuttles away, gets into his car and drives toward Georgia. Disguised "kitchen scenes" recur throughout the Saga, indelibly linking food and feeling in Rabbit's mind, forcing him to seek love-food though it kills him. So, after Rabbit gets lost in West Virginia and returns to Brewer, he double-dates with his ex-basketball coach Tothero and two hookers and experiences a rejuvenation of love at a Chinese restaurant, because he and his date, Ruth, share a taste for food which shows no evidence of the carnivore. When Rabbit returns home the next day for his clothes, he drops his wife Janice's greasy pork chops in the garbage as a symbolic finish to their mis-marriage. Janice was incapable of providing the love-food he craved, so he seeks it in Ruth's garden.
But he finds a trap in Ruth's garden when, during a concealed "kitchen scene" at "The Castanet Club" Rabbit learns that his ex-teammate Ronnie Harrison had been Ruth's customer, so he punishes her for threatening his idyll by later forcing her to perform fellatio on him as she had on Harrison. In the same ParisReview interview, Updike described oral-genital contact as "a way of eating the apple of knowing," but Rabbit demands what must be freely given, mistakenly thinking he evades her trap by forcing her to "know him" as a client. He only traps himself.
When he returns to his family and his new baby, Janice now appears to him "a machine for breeding, feeding, hatching," and feels what the kitchen images showed him, that love is a trap in which nature uses and discards you, so that you become, "First inside, then out, garbage." As his mother had fed Nelson, Janice feeds her baby with breasts "veined like cantaloupes. " Parodying Rabbit, the baby howls for a more satisfying food, while Rabbit's stomach cramps as if he were starving. So he returns to Ruth's garden, only to discover another McGregor-style trap when she threatens to abort their child if he doesn't divorce Janice. Rabbit decides to parley over food, walks to the gaudy delicatessen, but then runs past it, not to Janice, his mother's hutch or Ruth's, possibly seeking the endless garden of the road.
Rabbit Redux, the second Rabbit novel, reveals a diminished Peter Rabbit. When he accidentally encounters Ruth, she declares: "You've had your day in the lettuce patch." How clearly she divined his self-punishment for his excursions: He thinks, "mouths munch, cunts swallow," and he flees entrapment in Janice's vaginal garden "like a tiger's mouth," because "her sex appetite is like the earth's appetite for death." So when eating at a Greek restaurant, he intuits that Janice is having an affair with one of her father's car salesmen, Charlie Stavros. Rabbit detests the food Janice eagerly consumes and later beats her for having tested other gardens as he had. As in Rabbit, Run, Rabbit has changed into Mr. McGregor.
Meanwhile, Rabbit houses Jill, a rich runaway, and, unlike Ruth, she tries to restore his rabbithood, calling his penis a carrot and feeding him wheat germ, water chestnuts, Familia, zucchini. However, he has admitted McGregor into his home in the form of a black power fugitive, Skeeter, who traps Jill with heroin, knowing that in her self-destructiveness "There's no dirt she won't eat. " So the addicted Jill would explore "eating as knowing, " though again debasing the exploration of love. Mimicking the food-for-sex exchange between Rabbit and Jill, Jill fellates Skeeter for heroin, and Rabbit lights a lamp for better viewing. But children have been watching through the window (another adaptation of the "kitchen scene"), and their outraged parents torch the house and Jill dies. Skeeter has mocked "eating as knowing" and countered its Edenic implications. This should warn Rabbit away from his quest for love-food, particularly when Jill's ghost visits and invites Rabbit to follow into the ultimate garden of death.
Rabbit Is Rich, the third novel of the Saga, finds Rabbit hungering for Rabbit food, but in a parallel to other kitchen scenes, Rabbit is forced to endure a lamb dinner which Janice has made to please her ex-lover Charlie Stavros. Famished, Rabbit eats a kohlrabi raw, "tearing off the leaves with his hands and stripping the skin from the bland crisp bulb with his front teeth. " Though Janice neglects the Angstrom garden, Rabbit dubs Melanie, his son's friend, "Earth mother" for she loves to garden and provides him with counter-culture salads as Jill had. But he continues his craving for nuts because they are love-food which recall his childhood eating: "he takes a cashew between his molars and delicately cracks it, prolonging the bliss. He loves nuts. Clean eating, not like meat. In the Garden of Eden there are nuts and fruit." Yet he knows, "there's nothing you can eat won't hurt you down 'here on Earth." Rabbit's sexual outings to other gardens have been transformed into junkets of self-destructive eating.
Rabbit is given ample warning about eating as regression when he hears but ignores Melanie's instruction in health food when he eats where she waitresses. She assures him that despite its name "The Crepe House," the former "Chop House" still caters to "two-ton Katrinas," and, Rabbit muses, "big old-fashioned German eaters, who have eaten themselves pretty well into the grave by now, taking with them tons of pork chops." Still, he orders macadamia nutsputters to accompany lettuce, carrots, and kohlrabi. Had Rabbit been attracted to Melanie as he had been to Ruth and Jill, he might have followed Melanie's lead and eaten as she does, "Wheat germ, alfalfa sprouts and Yogurt." Rabbit later chomps pecan sandies, even though ants had begun to feast on them.
For Rabbit to avoid killing himself with disorderly eating habits, he needs to equate food with love, not choose between them, as his mother-in-law's half-baked proverb states: "Kissing wears out, cooking don't." Rabbit wants both, so when Ronnie Harrison's wife fellates Rabbit, he observes her head stuck upon him "like a candy apple," and this "apple of knowing" gives Rabbit momentary emotional nourishment because it is freely given. Yet Rabbit stays with Janice, and is absorbed into her father's Toyota dealership, as his career mirrors his suicidal diet.
Janice is a "minimal housewife," enabler of Rabbit's eating disorder, proudly providing salted nuts and frozen Chinese dinners, purchased because "the pictures on the box looked good." Her Springer parents absorb Nelson, a point underlined through food: Rabbit loves Taco Chips, flushing them down with Maalox; Nelson hates "Mexican crap, tacos and chili. Yuk." Stymied by his in-laws, Rabbit yearns for Angstrom love-food, strives to recall the lyrics of "Shoo-fly pie and Apple Pan Dowdy," his mother's food which he craves, though he knows it "could give a hog zits. " Rabbit longs to return to his mother's garden, but Updike shows that to do so is to long for death.
In Rabbit at Rest, the last novel of the Saga, Rabbit finally knows "life is a strain on the heart," because "to live is to kill" and so "every time he thinks of death he wants to eat." This is not a defense but a death-wish. He even uses food imagery when choosing medical procedures: angioplasty is "like having your heart in an oven"; in heart-bypass "they crack your chest like a coconut." Abjuring the bypass, Rabbit asks God to stop him from eating. So when daughter-in-law Pru cooks whitefish and tells him about triglycerides, he accepts sea food for the first time, since, "Her instruction is so powerful, it goes to his heart." It also goes to his groin when Pru seduces him. After this quasi-incest, fear and guilt drive him to his southern hutch, a warren of condos in his retirement garden, Florida.
Deleon, Florida, is a garden without a fountain of youth: it activates a bottomless appetite, and he consumes lasagna, chips, scallops wrapped in bacon, and pizza. When his heart feels "squeezed" he counters with Nitrostat. Dining at Mead Hall leaves him disgusted with lobster, "blobby hungry slog creatures with hearts and mouths and anuses and feelers and feeble eyes, underneath the sea, things haunting it, eating each other sucking each other's stringy guts out." Of course he prefers Pennsylvania food "scrapple drenched in maple syrup, shoo-fly pie, " and though Janice's nutrition group says he is clogging his arteries, he won't give up his love of nuts, and this leads to humiliation when Rabbit, mistaking parrot food for nuts, unintentionally eats the "little brown things like rabbit turds!" His granddaughter howls at this, decides it must have been planned to make her laugh, so, playing the goofy grandad, he steals some of Judy's ice cream, partly because it contains nuts: "the fragments of pecan emerge like stars at evening." Naturally he presumes the McGregor in the family, Janice, causes his destructive eating, so he asks, "Why do you want to kill me with carbos" as she dishes out "meats, sausages, liverwurst, baloney, hot dogs, cashews." But his own cooking indicts Rabbit when his Father's Day cookout burgers prove uneatable. Later, he recalls ex-coach Tothero, saying "You eat and eat and it's never the right food." The right food is vanished love food.
He gets the modern version of the writing on the wall when a tv ad for Milk of Magnesia suddenly spells in capitals MOM, as though she warns him to protect his heart. Yet, since he cannot reclaim his mother's love and has felt supplanted by his son, he cannot find his way back from the foreign garden. Eden is impossible. You can't hop home again.
His fate may be that of America,
the Peter Rabbit tale adopted to drive home, as George Will
said, "a cautionary tale for America the sclerotic, its arteries clogged by dumb consumption."*
T. C. Boyle surely agrees with Will, for speaking to David Ulin in The Bloomsbury Review, Boyle admitted to an "obsession" with eating imagery in his work because it stemmed from "conspicuous consumption and our gnawing up all the world's resources." Like Updike he suspects not only national but international suicide in such disorder of the gut. As he noted in Budding Prospects, "eat, the id tells us, and sometimes we listen," but he turns his attention to Freud's insight that the Id may be prompting death, not life. Boyle's Water Music won the "Aga Khan" prize in 1981 for the best work to appear in The Paris Review-- only a few years after Updike's interview in which he admitted employing "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" as an inter-text in Rabbit, Run. Conceivably Boyle was drawn to the same source, and, writing about Water Music in The Village Voice, Ken Tucker observed that Boyle "parodies everyone he's read" and since Boyle has stated a desire for a "career like Updike's where you keep changing," is it possible that he parodies the Potter fable in his work? Although Boyle makes no overt references to "The Tale of Peter Rabbit," the structure of the story emerges as his rabbits are spoofed,. mocked and lampooned in the odd gardens, the traps and punishments exacted by McGregor, the difficult return to the hutch, the stomach distress incurred. Boyle's Peter Rabbit deserves inspection, since the quest for other gardens is the quest for the lost garden of the innocent self.
What kind of person is Boyle's Peter Rabbit? He is ingenuous enough to expect Nigerians to accept his colonialism, like Mungo Park in Water Music, naive enough to think the garden of America will welcome aliens, like Hiro Tanaka in East is East and Cándido and América Rincón, of Tortilla Curtain, trusting enough to think he can mine marijuana with impunity, like Felix Nasmyth, in Budding Prospects, and innocent enough, like Eleanor Lightbody of The Road to Wellville, to think grief can be cured by a nutritional guru. Like Rabbit Angstrom Boyle's rabbit is timorous, idealistic, gullible and easily tempted. Surprised by the realistic punishments ensuing from their misjudgments, Hiro kills himself, Felix is cheated, Mungo is slain, Eleanor nearly starves, and the Rincóns smother in cataclysmic mud.
Thus Peter's venture to trespass the tempting farm next door is treated as an absurd urge, doomed to feel the wrath of Mr. McGregor. An urge to gain entry to the "Gynecomorphous melting pot" of a "Women's Restaurant" (Descent of Man) induces a sex-change operation. In "Carnal Knowledge" (Without a Hero) a carnivore, lured by a "Vegan" into guerilla war against Mr. McGregor's turkey farm, is humiliated and returns to the world of the Big Mac. In "Respect" (Without a Hero) a vendetta starts when Pantaleo gathers snails for a stew for his starving children. The Rincóns (Tortilla Curtain) find they must live like "rabbits in a burrow" after their campfire causes a canyon conflagration.
In World's End the Dutch in seventeenth century America, transport the sumptuous Pinkster eating contests of Holland to New York, only to end with terminal belly aches, and literally eating dirt. As an epic Peter Rabbit, Harmanus Van Brunt's inexplicably bottomless appetite causes him to gobble the dinner of the entire family, ravage the garden, empty the cellar and slaughter and consume Van Wart's prize boar, a demonic version of conspicuous consumption. Their patroon Oloffe Van Wart (a nightmarish Mr. McGregor) persecutes the Van Brunts as poor tenants of his land, land for which he, as wily Peter Rabbit, had cheated the Kitchawank Indians. Three centuries later this story of exploitation and betrayal is repeated in the 1940s and 1960s, forcing Walter Van Brunt to trespass into history, the garden of time, in order to recover the roots of the Van Wart evil and his father's betrayal by his excursion into the Van Wart world. But since he resists and has become "sick with history," ghosts of his grandmother and father, prompted by pancakes and liverwurst, try to return him to the New World Garden so he might gain a history lesson in history, freeing him from his misunderstanding of Sartre's existentialism. Inheriting the Van Brunt penchant for consuming vast quantities of food, Walter engorges himself from disillusionment with his father's betrayal. Unable to accept history, he is condemned to repeat it. He flees the hutch of history and like Rabbit transforms himself into Mr. McGregor.
To underline the need to accept punishment for trespassing, Boyle shows how the last of the Kitchawanks, Jeremy Mohonk, exacts revenge on the Van Warts through Depeyster's wife who bears his child. The line of descent in the matriarchal Kitchawank tribe was through the mother, so he has merely used her to continue the tribe as other Kitchawank males had done three centuries earlier. His excursion into the Van Wart garden has been the most successful of all the rabbits. Meanwhile, Depeyster has ingested his own garden dirt, since he has become "a terraphage" an eater of dirt... that hadn't seen the light of day in three hundred years ,...ancestral dirt from the cool weatherless caverns beneath the house. His dirt is Rabbit Angstrom's cashews, reminding him of his lost hutch: "He closed his eyes, and tasted his boyhood, tasted his father, his mother, tasted security, and the cellar was the soul of him." This dirt is Peter's mother's camomile tea.
In Dr. John Harvey Kellog's prescriptions
for health in The Road to Wellville, Boyle
offers a more complex version of camomile tea, and also a debased version of Peter Rabbit's mother. Some of Kellogg's theories make sense--outlawing alcohol and championing milk, and above all banishing meat-- in his most dramatic moment, he proves horse manure more nutritious than steak. But he inflicts his garden on a mesmerized brood. All the rabbits follow the "vegetarian righteousness" of psyllium seeds and hijiki, a Japanese seaweed sweeping out the colon, like "janitors with scrub brushes." Eleanor Lightbody is seduced into fasting and nearly dies. Her husband Will is visited by memories of the "gut clutching ambrosia of a good sixteen ounce steak," but instead quaffs 61 glasses of milk a day, and even undergoes Kellogg's rape/procedure, the removal of his intestinal "Kellogg kink."
Ironically, Kellogg's obsession with the clean colon to forestall the dangers of "autointoxication" make him "`Dr. Anus" to his son George, who as a boy had made his month-long self-starvation the symbol of his emotional famishing; Kellogg tried to win him with a porridge of "couscous-kohlrabi blended to semolina and high-fiber veggie." This rebellious rabbit is drowned by Kellogg in a sea of pure golden macadamia butter. Having lifted Kellogg's mask as a man fearing the bowels, George is washed away like cloaca and anal-retentive Kellogg goes unpunished. The same devolution from food to waste is offered in a parallel subplot in which Charley Ossining produces a spin-off cereal, eating his sickening experiments of his health food "Per-Fo, a predigested, peptonized, celery-impregnated miracle which so "tasted like pus," even hogs wouldn't touch it.
Other Boyle stories offer apocalyptic punishment for absurd rabbits who listen to the id, most pathetically as a matter of survival, as in Tortilla Curtain when a donated turkey roasted at an alien's campsite brings the fire next time to the haute bourgeoisie of Topanga Canyon. Or as in "Miracle at Ballinspittle," in which David McGahee arrives in hell and has a menu-driven vision of what he has eaten during his life: "surrounded by forlornly mooing herds of cattle, sad-eyed pigs and sheep, funereal geese and clucking ducks, a spill of scuttling crabs and the claw-waving lobsters, even the odd dog or two he'd inadvertently wolfed down in Tijuana burritos and Cantonese stir-fry, truckloads of potatoes, onions, avocados, half-eaten burgers and fork-scattered peas, the whole slithering wasteful cornucopia of his secret and public devouring...`Glutton!' cry voices. But Boyle, sensitive to the punishment hardly fitting the crime, asks, "who hasn't..laid to rest whole herds to feed his greedy gullet?" God as Mr. McGregor has thus damned us with natural appetite, for whose id does not respond to the command, "Eat!" But for Boyle and Updike this natural impulse is freighted with trouble. Indeed, as Updike observed, "to live is to kill; to eat is to die."
But we should not leave this subject
on such a dire note. Perhaps Eleanor Lightbody of The Road to Wellville
closest to returning to the lost garden, when, after dodging Kellogg/McGregor's
traps by restoring her sexual impulses, she opens a health food store catering
to chiropractors and Transcendentalists who imbibe carrot juice, a transformation
of Peter Rabbit's restorative camomile tea. Such simplicity stands in stark
contrast to the exhausting menus and exhausted Boyle and Updike.
* George Will, "Rabbit Angstrom, At Rest, at Last." The Leveling Wind. Viking, 1995. 402. Perhaps Boyle was fashioning the same emblem when he describes his heroine "America" Rinc6n lost in the supermarket in Tortilla Curtain (p. 123).
© Copyright Jack De Bellis,
Used with permission of the author
--Sandye Utley, Cincinnati, Ohio
Last Page Update: 11 April 2001