I don't think that I'm revealing any spoilers by saying that at the end of the final full novel in the Rabbit Angstrom tetralogy, Rabbit at Rest, Rabbit dies. After all, it's right there in the title when you think about it, and furthermore, where else could a series meant to span a man's entire life end? If Rabbit doesn't die, the work is not complete.
But on another level, Rabbit must die because as his lover Ruth calls him in one of the novels, he is Mr. Death. For fifty-odd years Rabbit has lived a charm life while those who come into contact with him seem to drop like flies. There is his newborn child in Rabbit, Run (and the baby that Ruth supposedly aborts), the runaway girl Jill in Rabbit Redux. In Rabbit is Rich we get the news that the enigmatic black troublemaker Skeeter has been shot and Rabbit's parents have passed away; in this final novel we find that his wife Janice's mother has died and so has Janice's friend Peggy, whom Rabbit fucks when Janice leaves him in Rabbit Redux, and even some of Rabbit's friends have begun to die. Rabbit has always been preoccupied with death*, but he has always been one step ahead of it, leaving it for those in his wake.
In the first of this novel's thre parts, Rabbit saves his grandaughter Judy from drowning in a sailing accident, but has a heart attack in the process, and from that moment on is marked by death--so long Rabbit has slipped away from death, but to save his grandaughter he must face it head on. When, in the hospital, his daughter-in-law Pru remarks to his son Nelson that he is in an awfully good mood for having had a heart attack, Nelson says, "I had that baby sister, you know... who drowned... Maybe he was happy to save this one." And that is exactly it--it is as if Rabbit has been given a second chance to save his daughter but he must sacrifice himself in the process. Death must take someone, and to this point Rabbit has chosen the other over himself.
It is sad to see that despite this newfound goodness in Rabbit, the problems of life continue to dog him--chief among them is Nelson's coke addiction and resultant embezzlement of thousands of dollars from the family's Toyota dealership. In typical Rabbit fashion--that is to say, overpowered by his sexual organs--Rabbit makes a huge mistake that threatens to cripple his family. It would be nice to say that he has developed the courage to face the music, but the end of Rabbit's saga mirrors its beginning: Just as Rabbit, Run opens with an impromptu basketball game and an opportunistic flight from responsbility, so Rabbit hightails it down to Florida to escape his troubles, where he and Janice have a summer condo. His second and final heart attack occurs on the basketball court, where he is playing HORSE with a young black kid. It is the only place he has ever felt comfortable, himself; it is where he is not Harry but Rabbit, his secret and true self. And that, though he dies flawed and unredeemed, is some comfort.
*To show how striking Updike can be when writing about death, I've reproduced a passage from Rabbit, Run where Rabbit has a dream concerning the death of his newborn daughter which has always been moving to me. To read it view the full post:
During this stolen doze he has a vivid dream. He is alone on a large sporting field, or vacant lot, litered with small pebbles. In the sky two perfect discs, identical in size but one a dense white and the other slightly transparent, move toward each other slowly. At the moment they touch he feels frightened and a voice like over a loudspeaker at a track meet announces, "The cowslip swallows up the elder." The downward gliding of the top one continues steadily until the other, though the stronger, is totally eclipsed, and just one circle is before his eyes, pale and pure. He understands: "the cowslip" is the moon, and "the elder" the sun, and that what he has witnessed is the explanation of death: lovely life eclipsed by lovely death. Intensely relieved and excited, he realizes he must go forth from this field and found a new religion. There is a feeling of the discs, and the the echo of the voice, bending over him importunately, and he opens his eyes.