What if Updike's “Rabbit” had lived on the West Side?

Inscription by John Updike. Photo: Jon Friedman

By Jon Friedman

“What if? What IF? WHAT IF?” the acclaimed New Yorker journalist and author Adam Gopnik mused at one point during his recent talk at 92Y.

Gopnik was there to speak about John Updike and, in a lively and sometimes poignant presentation, took a moment to reflect on writers and their work.

Gopnik prompted me to consider a “what if” that I wonder about, especially on those occasions when I need to come up with something stimulating because, say, the lights have just gone out on the F train and we're plunged into darkness:

What if Updike's best known hero — and, arguably, his alter ego — Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom had resided in Manhattan and not in Updike's native Pennsylvania Dutch country? When I put this to Gopnik after his presentation, he nodded along with my whimsy. He noted that Updike, who lived in New York for six years after graduating from Harvard and starting as a staff writer for The New Yorker, came to prefer the countrified confines of Massachusetts to our fair city.

Gopnik suggested that Rabbit in New York City “would have been Updike” in New York City.

And taking this college-freshman, literary device of the suspension of disbelief, I say Rabbit would have had to live on the West Side, right?

Rabbit tramping around in the Village — and fighting off the poseurs and tourists for a spot on line at Joe's pizzeria? Unthinkable. The Upper East Side? Give me a break. He'd scoff at all of the urban soccer moms. MAYBE I'll agree to put Rabbit in lower Manhattan, but only when SoHo and TriBeCa were populated by warehouses, not lofts, dive bars (no longer featuring pool tables in the back) and coffee houses.

But I could see Rabbit living relatively happily in Clinton — though you just know that Harry would forever refer to the nabe by its traditional handle of Hell's Kitchen.

You'd never find Harry in Fairway or, for that matter, in a Whole Foods or a Trader's Joe. He's strictly a D'Agostino's/Gristedes kind of guy. He'd probably buy his beer and chips at a bodega, too.

Note: I came honestly by such obsessive ideas. I inhaled Updike's remarkable four-novel series, tracing both Harry's life and that of his beloved United States of America, from 1959 to 1989. Updike produced a new novel every 10 years: “Rabbit Run,” “Rabbit Redux,” “Rabbit Is Rich” and, finally, “Rabbit at Rest.” (For the record, Updike later wrote a novella called “Rabbit Remembered” — and it, too, is terrific.)

I read “Rabbit, Run” in the weeks between my college graduation and my arrival date for the summer program at the Medill School of Journalism of Northwestern University. Then the floodgates had opened and I eventually devoured the other books. To this day, I marvel how Updike created an entire world in each of his sensational novels. He made me want to be a novelist (and I am one, too — albeit unpublished, so far).

I met Updike. Once. On Oct. 24, 1995. I was working for Bloomberg News. He was in the office to appear on Charlie Rose, to commemorate the publication of all four of the Rabbit books in one volume. He was pleased when I quoted passages back to him from the Rabbit books, stuff he seemed to have forgotten writing — and then appreciated anew with me reciting them.

That day, I did something I never do — and righteously chew out my journalism students for doing: ask your interview subject for an autograph.

He smiled and wrote: “For Jon, all best to a real Angstromite.”

I am not embarrassed to say that his inscription means a lot to me. I even carry it with me in my iPhone.

And speaking of the 21st century, what in the world would Harry have thought of smartphones? Nah. He would be a flip-phone man till his dying day. Right?

Of course, Rabbit Angstrom's life could not possibly have been the same here. You know that great scene at the very end of “Rabbit, Run” when Harry, predictably, takes off, to find his version of peace of mind?

It just wouldn't be the same to see the guy charging toward the sanctuary of the entrance of a downtown IRT station along Broadway.