Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Rabbit Angstrom's playlist

The Impalas—part of the '50s soundscape
John Updike's Rabbit, Run famously begins with an intense forty pages in which the novel's eponymous protagonist, Rabbit Angstrom, drives from the fictional city of Brewer, Pennsylvania deep into Maryland and then back in the wake of a fight with his wife Janice. It's a great moment in postwar American literature—but what's often overlooked is that it also contains a detailed musical snapshot of pre-Beatles American rock and pop music. Updike catalogues the music Rabbit hears on the radio on his way south song by song, basically creating a "playlist" avant la lettre for his drive. Thanks to the latter-day magic of YouTube, with a little work, you can recreate Rabbit's entire late-fifties musical world—the perfect atmospheric background music for an afternoon of reading your copy of Goodbye, Columbus, Catch-22, Franny and Zooey, or Revolutionary Road, or for driving across state lines late at night on anger and disappointment. You can listen to the playlist I've assembled here, or use the hyperlinks in the text of the original passage below:


It takes him a half-hour to pick his way through Lancaster. On 222 he drives south through Refton, Hessdale, New Providence, and Quarryville, through Mechanics Grove and Unicorn and then a long stretch so dull and unmarked he doesn't know he's entered Maryland until he hits Oakwood. On the radio he hears "No Other Arms, No Other Lips," "Stagger Lee," a commercial for Rayco Clear Plastic Seat Covers, "If I Didn't Care" by Connie Francis, a commercial for Radio-Controlled Garage Door Operators, "I Ran All the Way Home Just to Say I'm Sorry," "That Old Feeling" by Mel Torme, a commercial for Big Screen Westinghouse TV Set with One-finger Automatic Tuning, "needle-sharp pictures a nose away from the screen," "The Italian Cowboy Song," "Yep" by Duane Eddy, a commercial for Papermate Pens, "Almost Grown," a commercial for Tame Cream Rinse, "Let's Stroll," news (President Eisenhower and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan begin a series of talks in Gettysburg, Tibetans battle Chinese Communists in Lhasa, the whereabouts of the Dalai Lama, spiritual ruler of this remote and backward land, are unknown, a $250,000 trust fund has been left to a Park Avenue maid, Spring scheduled to arrive tomorrow), sports news (Yanks over Braves in Miami, somebody tied with somebody in St. Petersburg Open, scores in a local basketball tournament), weather (fair and seasonably warm), "The Happy Organ," "Turn Me Loose," a commercial for Schuylkill Life Insurance, "Rocksville, P-A" (Rabbit loves it), "A Picture No Artist Could Paint," a commercial for New Formula Barbasol Presto-Lather, whose daily cleansing action tends to prevent skin blemishes and emulsifies something, "Pink Shoe Laces" by Dody Stevens [sic], a word about a little boy called Billy Tessman who was hit by a car and would appreciate cards or letters, "Petit Fleur," "Fungo" (great), a commercial for Wool-Tex All-Wool Suits, "Fall Out" by Henry Mancini, "Everybody Likes to Do the Cha Cha Cha," a commercial for Lord's Grace Table Napkins and the gorgeous Last Supper Tablecloth, "The Beat of My Heart," a commercial for Speed-Shine Wax and Lanolin Clay, "Venus," and then the same news again. Where is the Dalai Lama? 
I've attempted to include something that comes close to the kinds of commercials or news that Rabbit might have heard where appropriate. (Warning: the Tibetan stuff is a 10-minute CIA-produced short film.) Also, I mapped out (roughly) the route that Rabbit takes on his way south, assuming that Brewer is somewhere around Updike's own hometown, Reading:


It's funny reading Rabbit's drive now. It doesn't seem like an event that's dated—it's not like an Eliot character jumping into a cabriolet. But nowadays, Rabbit's path might be just about impossible. Even if he'd willfully shut off his iPhone (though maybe he'd be a Droid man) to avoid getting calls from Janice, he could have used the GPS to figure out how to avoid Baltimore and actually reach South Carolina as he initially plans. The modern well-marked multi-lane highway system would mean he wouldn't have to take all those Pennsylvania back roads on the way down. And when he finally came back home, he could have tracked down Tothero, his old basketball coach, on Facebook. In forty-eight more years, will reading about Rabbit's "run" seem as strange as reading about the Schlegel sisters' drives in Howards End? Will indexing doo-wop songs on YouTube seems as terribly outdated as looking up "A Bicycle Built For Two" with a card catalogue? Will someone try to reconstruct the pop songs mentioned in a novelist's description of someone's iPod playlist, and find the style and recording quality of "Get Lucky" and "Summertime Sadness" as strange as we do the rockabilly and novelty songs sewn into Updike's prose, with the siege of a Kenyan shopping mall and chemical weapons in Syria mere sentences in a history book?

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