Monday, February 18, 2008

Book review: John Updike's Rabbit series

John Hoyer Updike
Among modern American writers, the name John Updike figures prominently. The author of nearly 2 dozen novels, and half as many short story collections, as well as poetry and literary criticism, Updike is recognized as a leader in the art of fiction. His most famous work is a series of four novels depicting the life of a middle-American man, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom.

The series begins with the 1959 novel, Rabbit Run, which depicts a young, restless Harry (nicknamed "Rabbit"). Rabbit is something of a local celebrity in the small Pennsylvania town of Mount Judge, having been a star on the high school basketball team. Over the course of the novel, Rabbit, feeling trapped by the responsibilities of his new wife (Janice) and two young children, and sensing that, already, the world is looking past him, abandons his family in reckless pursuit of his own selfish interests. Various prominent persons in Rabbit's life coax and cajole him toward accepting his responsibilities while he flirts with the idea of casting it all aside. He discovers that he has power over the people that depend on him and he enjoys it. At one point, Rabbit relates to Ruth, a lonely young woman with whom he has taken up, what he has learned from the experience: "If you have the guts to be yourself, other people'll pay your price."

The second novel in the series, Rabbit Redux (published in 1971), picks up some 10 years later. Rabbit's marriage has survived in spite of the loss of his infant daughter to a tragic accident that occurred in the first novel. In Redux, Janice gets restless and abandons Rabbit and their son, Nelson, in pursuit of an adulterous relationship. Rabbit, now a single parent, gets involved with a crowd of social radicals spawned by the turbulence of 1960s America. Just as the struggle for civil rights and the sexual revolution found their way into living rooms across the country, so too for the Angstrom household. Quite literally, Rabbit invites the radicalism and turbulence of the era into his house with huge consequences to himself, his son, and his estranged wife.

In the third novel, Rabbit is Rich (1981), Rabbit has attained a level of respectability and financial success working as the manager of a Toyota franchise owned by his mother-in-law. Set in the middle '80s, the Reagan era, the novel relates how Rabbit and Janice cope with the problems (both real and existential) of middle age and the encroachment of life's inevitability.

The final novel, Rabbit at Rest (1990), takes place in the late 1980s. Here, we find Rabbit, retired and wintering with Janice in Florida, where they have purchased a condominium. Rabbit has developed a heart condition that threatens to kill him. Throughout the novel, Rabbit, now resigned to "has-been" status, searches for reasons to care. He struggles to find peace with his son, Nelson, who has a family of his own and a serious drug problem, and to resolve all the relationships that have somehow endured through Rabbit's many failings.

The series, taken in total, provides a fascinating portrayal of middle America from the early 1960s through the late 1980s. Rabbit, himself, is a complex character. There is little to like about him, in truth. He is selfish, hedonistic, and cruel. But, as the series develops, the reader comes to recognize that, for all his faults, Rabbit is not evil. More likely he is the product of a young society that does not accept the concept of limitations, of restraint, of prudence.

My own encounter with Rabbit began almost randomly. My (ex-)wife and I were browsing at a bookstore in Lincoln City, Oregon, when I happened upon a copy of Rabbit Run. I had read a short story in college (I think it was Pigeon Feathers) and I recognized Updike's name as someone who "should be read." So, I bought the book and proceeded to dive in. Well, the story grabbed me, right from the start. I was a young man of some 30 years at the time, and I recognized in Rabbit some of the baser of my emotions: the arrogance and infallibility of youth, the solipsistic belief that the Universe radiates out from one's self. Intrigued, I continued, years later, with Rabbit Redux, and then Rabbit is Rich, but was disappointed with these latter two books. Rabbit's experiences in the two sequels were more dated, more specific to the eras they sought to portray; they lacked the universal appeal of Rabbit Run.

By the time I got to Rabbit at Rest, some 15 years after I started the series, my expectations had been considerably lowered. But then, Updike knocked me for a loop.

In the series denouement, Rabbit Angstrom sees the world in the cold light of disillusionment. Age has brought about his comeuppance: he recognizes all of his failures, all of his petty disasters. Here is a man who, stripped of the armor of success and youth, has learned that the entire world does not revolve around him.

Updike is at the height of his powers with this novel, which neatly bookends the series. Issues that are raised in the first novel are addressed and resolved with Updike's masterful usage of various literary devices: The guilt Rabbit feels over the accidental drowning of his infant daughter (in the first novel) is assuaged when he rescues his young granddaughter, Judy from drowning, ultimately at the price of his own life. Just as the first novel opened with young Rabbit Angstrom impulsively joining some youngsters in a pickup game of basketball, then using his strength to dominate them, the penultimate scene of the final novel shows Rabbit again joining a pickup game to test himself against the restraints of his fragile heart. It is almost an act of ritual suicide.

I remember being aggravated at the end of Rabbit Run because Rabbit, who had abused and degraded everyone around him, never seemed to get what was coming to him. But by the end of Rabbit at Rest, I was weeping for him, weeping for this complex person, a failure on so many levels, but basically a well-meaning, confused man. His parting words, delivered to Nelson as Rabbit lies dying on his hospital bed, convey a haunting wisdom that I'm still trying to grasp: "Nelson, all I can tell you is, it isn't that bad."

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