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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Rabbit Angstrom Series

Rabbit Angstrom Series by John Updike

2 of 6 people found the following review helpful:

December 17, 2004

Some authors offer us the "slice of life" in a novel, but with the four Rabbit books, Updike gives us the entire pie by following Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom through four decades, starting in 1959 with "Rabbit, Run" and ending in 1989 with "Rabbit at Rest", the last two in the series each winning a Pulitzer and rightfully so.

"Rabbit, Run" took me two false starts before I finally got all the way through it. It was only after reading some of Updike's other books that I was prepared for this one, because Rabbit, Run is not a very happy book, with no real redemption or epiphanies at the end like many other novels. In this one, Rabbit runs out on his pregnant wife Janice and 2-year-old son Nelson only to have an affair with another woman (Ruth), who he then gets pregnant before returning to Janice for the birth of their second child, who Janice (while drinking, perhaps "post-partem depression" is what they'd call it now) accidentally drowns. This one I think is th weakest of the series as the characters hadn't really come into their own yet and neither really had the author. Rabbit through that book always seems like a whiny jerk while Janice is a drunken slob and if things had stayed that way, I don't think we'd have four books. But it's the foundation for a lot of better things to come. (Three stars)

With "Rabbit Redux" 10 years later, Rabbit has matured and taken a job at the printing press where his father works. He and Janice have a little house in a development and are sort of treading water in a blue-collar existence. This time it's Janice who runs out on Harry and Nelson to hook up with a used car salesman named Charlie. In response, Harry takes in a runaway named Jill and her "friend" (drug dealer really) Skeeter, who tries to enlighten Rabbit on civil rights and his view of the world. As Jill sinks deeper into addiction thanks to Skeeter, Rabbit has an affair with Janice's best friend Peggy. During this, Jill and Skeeter burn down Rabbit's house with Jill being killed in the fire. Because of heart trouble, Charlie doesn't want to stay with Janice and so she and Rabbit after the fire reluctantly get back together. This second part was I think the transitional book, where Rabbit became more of a responsible adult (though still prone to selfish bouts) and someone readers could look at as a more "heroic" figure. Janice also shows more personality through this book. (Four Stars)

"Rabbit is Rich" is probably my favorite in the series. It takes place another 10 years later in 1979. Rabbit has taken over the Toyota dealership established by Janice's deceased father. This leads to quite a financial windfall for Rabbit, as the title suggests. He and Janice spent quite a bit of time at the country club with their new friends, but still live with Janice's mother in her house. Nelson, away at Kent State, has grown froma troubled teen into a troubled young adult. He has impregnated a secretary at the school named Teresa (nicknamed Pru)--like father like son--and they get married. Nelson tries to work with Harry at the lot, but (again, like father like son) can't find his niche there. On vacation in the Caribbean (in part to give Nelson some breathing space at the lot), Harry and Janice and their friends from the country club engage in a little wife-swapping. Harry wants the wife of his best friend, but instead winds up with Thelma, the wife of his long-time rival Ronnie. The vacation is interrupted with news that Nelson is gone and they return home to find out that he's returned to school. Harry and Janice buy their own house, leaving the other for Nelson and Pru to live in after he returns from school. This book, while you could say is the most boring of the series in that no one dies and there are no big affairs, is also Rabbit at his most "heroic", because while still selfish the sins he commits aren't quite as bad. The wife-swapping was a mutual agreement--Janice participated as well--so it's not really an affair. What I liked about "Rabbit is Rich" is that by lacking the big plot twists of the others, it presents more a picture of real American life and even 25 years later is not so different from my family. It's by this point that I think Updike has really got to know the characters to make them even better and his skills as an author have grown as well. (Five stars)

"Rabbit at Rest" concludes the series starting in 1988. Harry (now 56) and Janice are "snowbirds" who travel to Florida to spend winters there while Nelson runs the car dealership. Like many Americans, years of poor eating and lack of exercise are catching up with Rabbit, leading to heart trouble that culminates in a heart attack during a sailing expedition with his granddaughter Judy. Rabbit recovers and back in Pennsylvania gets an angioplasty when he should have gone for a full bypass. It's during this time that Rabbit learns Nelson is hooked on coke and imbezzling money from the dealership along with the company's accountant, who is dying of AIDS and using the money to buy nonapproved medication. Nelson is forced into rehab, Harry takes over the dealership, and Janice goes to school to become a realtor. At one point while Nelson is away, Harry and Pru have a one-night stand. Toyota pulls the plug on the dealership, Nelson comes back as a Born Again Christian, and Harry is left alone for long stretches while Janice goes to school. Now you'd think Harry would be trying to change his life after the near-death experience, but you'd be wrong--he still doesn't really exercise and has a penchant to cram his mouth with salty snacks. In the end, when Janice finds out about Harry and Pru's encounter, she says she'll never forgive him. In response, Harry goes down to Florida early, where he winds up overexerting himself on a basketball court. Enough. This final installment is a step back from "Rabbit is Rich" and incorporates more of the big plot twists. I thought the coke and AIDS were the kind of stereotypical things anyone writing a book about the '80s would work in--if Updike would have worked in some "Wall Street"-type financial stuff it would be the perfect '80s hat trick--so I was a little disappointed. And I had to groan when the Japanese Toyota executive comes onto the scene with his dialogue peppered with "l"s replaced by "r"s. Shameless. A master author like Updike should not have to stoop to such a low-brow device. But what I really respect with this book is Updike did not turn it into a sappy tear-jerker where Rabbit "comes to terms" with death and makes peace with everyone in his family. There is no redemption for Rabbit, even in death. (Four Stars)

People have devoted whole books on the subject of what these books are "about" and what they mean to us and such. What I think is Rabbit is a classic character because he is so real, with some virtues and some vices. He is selfish, but so are Nelson and Janice and you and I. Some of the things he does are far worse than many of us will ever do, but we're all at least a little selfish. But like most of us, Rabbit is also able to make sacrifices for the greater good of his son and marriage, although reluctantly.

In the end, the Rabbit novels are a portrait of American life through four decades. Harry is not really an "Everyman" but he's the most human character I've read in a while and most of us can probably see there's a little Rabbit in all of us if we care to look. Read all four of the novels to get the complete Rabbit saga and I guarantee your perception of life will never be the same.

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