Some of my work on Updike was discussed on The Dish with Andrew Sullivan.
Some of my work on Ross Macdonald was discussed on Pretty Sinister Books.
Here is my interview with superstar music impresario Wendy Starland.
Here is my interview with Pulitzer Prize nominee Olympia Vernon.
Here is my interview with the editor of Best American Short Stories, Heidi Pitlor.
Here is my interview with acclaimed artist Emil Kazaz.
My musing on John D. Macdonald, Travis McGee, and the chicks was picked up on The Rap Sheet.

SIGNS AND SIGNAGE IN UPDIKE'S 'RABBIT' SERIES


SIGNS AND SIGNAGE IN UPDIKE’S ‘RABBIT’ NOVELS (2)


            Earlier I pointed out that as the Rabbit series progresses forward in time Angstrom becomes more tuned into, more aware of, signs and signage; I opined that, once he’s worked as a linotyper, his reticular activating system has been opened up, has been made sensitive to, and made alert to, sings and signage in a deeper way than when it was when he was a sales rep for MagiPeeler. In fact, in Rabbit Redux, he begins to think of episodes in his own life as headlines similar to the ones he typesets at his job for the newspaper.  In this novel Updike gives six examples of real stories that Angstrom typesets and, also, six examples of imaginary headlines about his life’s own scenes that he sees in his mind’s eye.  We’ll get to these in a moment, but first I want to briefly list the entire list of 19 signs that appear (by my rough count) in the book.  In referring to the primary source I’m using the Nineteenth Printing of the Fawcett Crest edition from October, 1990.  For this list I’ll simply indicate what kind of sign appears on a given page – for example ‘theater marquee’ or ‘newspaper headline’ rather than quoting the entire passage.
            Page 19: Defaced bus stop sign
            Page 22: Storefront signs, theater marquee
            Page 34: Actual newspaper headline
            Page 41: Bar front
            Page 59: Bus stop sign, trash can sign
            Page 72: An imaginary headline
            Page 75: Restaurant signs
            Page80: Jan on Janice’s uniform
            Page 89: Electronic message board
            Page 92: Same as above
            Page 96: An imaginary headline
            Page 111: Ditto
            Page 128: Ditto
            Page 131: Ditto
            Page 138: An actual headline
            Page 163: Ditto
            Page 176: Ditto
            Page 189: An imaginary headline
            Page 342: Graffiti
            Page 346: A motel sign


Updike (p. 33) describes The Verity Press as follows:
            “The Verity Press lives on order forms, tickets to fundraising dances, political posters in the fall, high-school yearbooks in the spring, throwaway fliers for the supermarkets, junk mail sales announcements.  On its rotary press it prints a weekly, The Brewer Vat, which specializes in city scandal since the two dailies handle all the hard local and syndicated national news.”  But not every headline that Angstrom works on constitutes a scandal.  The six I found are:
            Page 34 -  BREWER FACTORY TOOLS COMPONENT HEADED TOWARDS MOON
            Page 138 – WIDOW, SIXTY-SEVEN, RAPED AND ROBBED.  Three Black Youths Held.
            Page 164 – Local Excavations Unearth Antiquities
            Page 166 – this is a continuation of the story from p. 164
            Page 192 – Sentenced For Possession
            Page 295 – ARSON SUSPECTED IN PENN VILLAS BLAZE
            It’s interesting to note that two of the stories deal not with crime or scandal but with Brewer’s contributions to humanity, as it were, or to civilization.  In one case it’s revealed that a crucial part of the spacecraft going to the moon is made right in Brewer, in “the plain brick building… that thousands of Brewer citizens walk unknowingly by each day.”  In the second case, digging and reconstruction uncover things from “olden times” – in addition to an underground speakeasy we find that (p.164):
Also old sign-boards are common.  Ingeniously shaped in the forms of cows, beehives, boots, mortars, plows, they advertise “dry goods and notions,” leatherwork, drugs, and medicines, produce of infinite variety.  Preserved underground, most are still easily legible and date from the nineteenth century.
            This, like the part for the Apollo rocket being made in a nondescript building in town, is important in the study of this novel for this reason: when Angstrom creates imaginary headlines in his mind they are all of the ‘scandal’ type mentioned in the passage quoted about The Verity Press.  That is to say, they are all sensationalistic gossip.  None of them are interesting historico-cultural tidbits such as the part for the rocket or the signs from “olden times”.  This is doubtlessly an important clue as to the general terms in which he thinks about his own life.


            Out of Charlie Stavros’ affair with Janice, Angstrom imagines this headline:
                        LINOTYPER’S WIFE LAYS LOCAL SALESMAN.  Greek takes Strong Anti-Viet Stand.
            Out of his co-worker Buchanan’s question as to whether “Your old lady still shackin’ up across town?” he imagines this one:
                        VERITY EMPLOYEE NAMED CUCKOLD OF WEEK.  Angstrom Accepts Official Horns From Mayor.
            Out of his fear that someone has spiked his drink in Jimbo’s he constructs:
                        AUTOPSY ORDERED IN FRIENDLY LOUNGE DEATH.  Coroner Notes Strange Color of Skin. 
            Out of his fear/imagining that men running in the night are after himself and Jill he mentally builds:
                        LOCAL MAN STABBED DEFENDING UNKNOWN GIRL.
            Out of his initial horror at Jill’s coming on to him he thinks up:
                        CLINIC FOR RUNAWAYS OPENED Fathers Do Duty On Nights Off
            And finally as a result of his paranoia over taking Skeeter into the house he thinks up the imaginary headline:
                        FUGTIVE FROM JUSTICE HOLDS FAMILY AT GUNPOINT Mayor Vows, No Deals.

            And thusly it can be seen that all six headlines Angstrom imagines are of the “scandal” variety – none have the somewhat positive, upbeat tone that at least two of the stories he linotypes in reality have.  This may or may not be a significant clue as to what his internal dialogue about his own life is like at this stage of his being.  However that may be, I would like to submit that the actual content of his life is only a shade more dramatic in Rabbit Redux than it is in Rabbit, Run, where he never thinks of his own life in imagined headlines, and his marked tendency to do so in the second novel is a reflection of his having worked as a typesetter for the ten years between the two books.
            As he did in the first novel with the STOP sign (discussed on this blog in the first post on this subject in December 2013), Updike here caves in to the temptation to use common items around town – the BUS STOP sign that is defaced to read PUS DROP and the overflowing municipal trash can that reads KEEP BREWER CLEAN – as symbols of larger psychological and sociological conditions.  And the ugly racial graffiti spray painted onto the house after the fire evidences a latent racism in Brewer that is hinted at throughout the story but never really discussed outright. 

            When we get to the third novel in the series we will see the signs beginning to take on a different character yet again.


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