Rabbit is Rich

Rabbit is Rich by John Updike

“That’s why we love disaster…it puts us back in touch with guilt and sends us crawling back to God.”

Although it has this thought crossing Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom’s mind, the third novel in the saga doesn’t really deal in disaster. Rabbit, Run and Rabbit Redux both built toward cataclysms that will forever haunt the characters – but in Rabbit is Rich, John Updike spares them anything of the sort. Perhaps he is aware that another cruel twist of fate would seem ridiculously far-fetched. Perhaps he also thinks they deserve this providence.

Rabbit is certainly grateful, now 46 and running what was once his father-in-law’s Toyota dealership. Advancing age and disposable income have made him less jittery, and more smug. Where he once sought to explode the family unit, now he wants to sustain and control it. He’s all about securing his wealth, ingratiating himself with some new country club pals, and bossing around his errant, surly son Nelson (now of college age).

After the tacked-on late 60s backdrop in Rabbit Redux, the action of Rabbit is Rich is much more tightly wound around its setting, with constant reference to the 1979 Oil Shock. Fretting over too much money in the bank, Rabbit first invests in South African gold coins, then swaps it all for antique silver dollars. It’s a slight return to those youthful jitters and a plot thread that allows for some bizarre comic set pieces. Another echo of the dithering twenty-something Rabbit is his theory that he may have a grown-up daughter, conceived amongst the inglorious events of Rabbit, Run. His nagging desire to find out for sure stems from that book’s great disaster, the loss of his second child.

If we warm to Rabbit at all, it’s perhaps only because he’s more respectful toward his wife Janice than in previous books, and just marginally less obnoxious than the company he keeps. His new status has only emboldened an ugly conservatism that was always there in him. Readers are liable to snort when he berates his son, “How did you get so prejudiced? Not from me.” Updike wrote in a 1995 introduction to the tetralogy, “Readers who expect novelists to reward and punish and satirise their characters from a superior standpoint will be disappointed.” Yet again, he pushes Rabbit quite far – the unpalatable inner monologues still spill forth without a hint of authorial opprobrium. I admire that, but it’s easy to see why these novels are not especially fashionable in 2021.

400+ pages in the company of the Angstroms is kind of exhausting, but it’s hard to say what Updike could have cut. Late on in this indulgent opus, Rabbit stares up at a Caribbean night sky and waits a while for a shooting star, until ‘there it is…vivid and brief as a scratched match, a falling star, doused in the ocean of ink’. That’s something like the feeling of reading Updike – he’ll test your patience, but he is sure to dazzle or surprise you sooner or later.

Rabbit Redux

Rabbit Redux by John Updike

Ten years after Rabbit, Run, Updike reacquaints us with Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom. He’s weathered the 1960s holding down a printing job and his marriage to Janice, whilst raising his son Nelson (now 13). He immediately seems more conservative and no less toxic than last time around. In a neat flip of the first book’s dynamic, Rabbit now has to come to terms with his wife vanishing and shacking up with another man. If that seems inevitable in hindsight, the rest of the plot does not.

The main disappointment here is that Updike takes much less care over his supporting characters. A rickety middle act is built on two figures who aren’t convincing at all – Jill, a runaway from a wealthy Connecticut family, and Skeeter, a drug-pushing, sermonising black Nam veteran on the lam. A background of the moon landing, Vietnam, Ted Kennedy in Chappaquiddick, Laugh-In, and so on deliberately roots Rabbit Redux much more precisely in time. Although Jill and Skeeter are meant to fit into this, to contain some late 60s wayward white hippiedom and black activism respectively, they ring awkwardly hollow, and only serve to expose yet more ugly sides to Rabbit’s personality. That’s a shame, as other new faces, like the slick car salesman Charlie Stavros, do jump off the page.

The constant in these novels is the precise, ultra-observant voice, and that was enough to hold my attention during the weaker sections – once Updike’s style clicks, it’s very impressive and absorbing. I might have to take a bit of a break from Rabbit, but I remain curious about where Updike takes him next – I gather Rabbit is Rich is many readers’ favourite in the sequence.

Rabbit, Run

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom pops out to get some cigarettes, but on a selfish whim he abandons his pregnant wife and their son. Updike follows the shirker over the next several months as he conducts a shabby affair, sparking concern and fuelling gossip around the painfully typical American town of Brewer, Pennsylvania.

The ‘safety net’ of the family and community around Rabbit and Brewer is among the most engrossing features of this first of the Rabbit novels, published in 1960. There’s the pitiful figure of his erstwhile basketball coach and biggest fan Marty Tothero, the well-meaning meddler Reverend Eccles, kind old Mrs. Smith, and Rabbit’s own parents and in-laws. None of them are quite prepared to disavow Rabbit as a pariah in the way he expects, with most of them attempting in their own way to nudge him back towards his wife Janice, son Nelson and an unborn child.

Rabbit himself is impossible to like – he reminds us that he’s a self-absorbed lech every couple of pages. Even walking down a hospital corridor to meet his second child for the very first time, he’s distracted by the swing of a nurse’s haunches. His new squeeze Ruth is eventually revolted by his ‘touch of death’, but many, many readers are driven to toss Rabbit, Run across the room long before that – long before he makes his very worst decisions. Unfortunately, they’ll miss the way Rabbit animates all the supporting characters as he muddles through life.

The other thing that makes this slowly plotted novel sing is its intensely observant voice. It revels in a kind of hyper-detail, zooming in on everyday objects, subtle body language, and rare bursts of cataclysmic action with a kind of even, careful interest in it all – the ‘rusty tears’ of a hot tap in a grotty toilet, a gas station window ‘stained green by stacked cans of liquid wax’, the way Ruth reads paperbacks without cracking the spine. And Lucy Eccles’ raging eyes with ‘the little speckled section of her green irises like torn tissue-paper around the black pupil-dots’.

Many writers reach for the present tense to give their work an immediacy, only to end up with a flat screenplay texture to much of their prose. Updike, who must have popularised (if not pioneered) this stylistic choice, is the absolute master of it. It allows him to dart between moment and memory, the warp and weft of Rabbit’s chaotic life, in sustained interior monologues. So many of these impressive (occasionally confusing) passages serve to expose Rabbit’s slippery grip on reality and responsibility. He clings to his glory days as the high-school basketball star, defining his mid-20s against his footloose former self, so it never takes much for him end up adrift on memory or lost in lust.

“I once did something right. I played first-rate basketball. I really did. And after you’re first-rate at something, no matter what, it kind of takes the kick out of being second-rate.”

I’ve tried a couple of Updike’s later novels before now, but Angstrom has always been a great gap in my reading. I’m looking forward to diving into the sequels, each of them supposedly decade-defining, soon.