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Monday, January 02, 2017

Rabbit is Rich (1981) by John Updike

Book Review
Rabbit is Rich (1981)
 by John Updike

   For me, John Updike is a symbol for the mainstream "serious" American fiction of my youth.  I associate him in my mind with the New Yorker, John Cheever, white people and New England.  To be fair, my childhood impression associating Updike with New England was mistaken- Rabbit Angstrom, the hero of Updike's classic Rabbit tetralogy, lives somewhere in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia. According, to Updike's biography, Rabbit's landscape is largely based on Berks County, Pennsylvania.   That's not a suburban location in the sense of tract homes and lengthy commutes, rather it's a formerly thriving industrial town now in permanent decline.

  During the course of the first three novels, Rabbit Angstrom from Linotype operator, working at the job his Dad got him, to part-owner of the Toyota/used car dealership founded by his now deceased father-in-law.   Rabbit is still living in his in-law's home, a decade after the disastrous fire which ended Rabbit Redux and destroyed the Angstrom's home from the first two books.   A decade later, life has mellowed for the Angstrom's, with Rabbit uncomfortably ballooning in size  He worries about losing his edge, feelings which are amplified when his son Nelson returns home during the summer before his senior year in college.

  Nelson, of course, played a prominent role in his father's own version of the summer of love.   Angstrom's summer of love was a primary concern of Rabbit Redux, but a decade later it's almost like the events of the second book have been erased in the minds of every character except son Nelson.   Updike reenacts the events of the first novel, Rabbit rebelling against and then embracing his responsibility, in the behavior of Nelson.   The big secret that percolates through Rabbit is Rich is that Nelson has gotten his girlfriend from college pregnant.  To call him ambivalent (Nelson) about the pregnancy of his girlfriend, Pru, is to do Nelson a favor.   In fact, he is transparently displeased with Pru' insistence on having the child.

  Rabbit and his wife are less unsure.  When the fact of the pregnancy is finally revealed to Rabbit, much of the tension in Rabbit is Rich dissipates, and what remains is a third act where the son repeats the sin of the father from the first book.  This time however, the perspective is that of the father, not the son.  The symmetry between book one and three really calls into question why Updike wrote a fourth book.  Although that book also won a Pulitzer Prize for Literature it did not make it into the 1001 Books list.

Nor did any other of Updike's voluminous bibliography make the cut.  The 1001 Books editors did not cut any of the three Rabbit titles from subsequent revisions.  What is left is the first three Rabbit books, and they serve as a window into the mindset of the middle class, northeastern, white American male from the period after World War II to the dawn of the Reagan era.

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