John Updike's Rabbit Tetralogy: Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit is Rich; Rabbit at Rest

The Rabbit Tetralogy (Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit is Rich; Rabbit at Rest)

  • Author:  John Updike (1932 – 2009
  • Rank:  #75
  • Publisher:  Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
  • Published:  1960, 1971, 1981, 1990
  • Pages:  280, 353, 423, 466
  • First Line:  “Boys are playing basketball around a telephone pole with a backboard bolted to it.”
  • Last Lines:  “Rabbit thinks he should maybe say more, the kid looks wildly expectant, but enough.  Maybe.  Enough.”
  • ML Edition:  #357  (Rabbit, Run combined with The Poorhouse Fair – two dust jackets – 1965, 1969)
  • Acclaim:  2 Pulitzer Prizes, 2 National Books Critics Circle Awards, National Book Award, All-TIME Top 100 List, New York Times Best Work of Literature in the Past 25 Years (Runner-Up)
    • Note:  Updike remains one of three authors to win the Pulitzer for Fiction twice (the others being Booth Tarkington and William Faulkner) and his two wins were for the last two Rabbit books; Rabbit is Rich is the only book to ever win the Pulitzer, National Book Award (when it was still the American Book Award) and National Book Critics Circle Award; the last two Rabbit books are 2 of only 7 books to win both the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Awards; Rabbit is Rich is one of only 4 books to win both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award
  • Film:  Rabbit, Run – 1970 – nearly impossible to find
  • Read:  Fall, 1996

The Novels: I’ll start this review with a little something different, something I submitted to the New York Times Book Review as a letter to the editor a few months back.  There had been an article, prompted by Philip Roth’s The Humbling, in which the “new narcissism” of writers was discussed in contrast with an older generation of Roth, Updike and Mailer.  I wrote the following, which never made it into print:

The John Updike of Rabbit, Run

“What bitter irony that David Foster Wallace should have chosen to attack John Updike and Philip Roth as narcissists.  There is the first mistake of attempting to conflate what they wrote with who they were, attributing their characters’ traits upon the author’s personalities.  Yet, was there any author whose writing, so wrapped up in the importance of itself, ever more narcissistic in style than Wallace’s, unless it be his contemporaries, Dave Eggers and Jonathan Safron Foer?  What’s more, Wallace chose to end his life, tragically, with suicide, the ultimate narcissistic act that thinks only of oneself while leaving everyone else to deal with their grief.  The other mistake is misjudging the obsession with sex as narcissism, when it is more a desperate reach for life.  Roth is still alive, still writing, still reaching for life, much like Updike did until the end.  Sadly, Wallace could not have only taken a lesson from them, but also one from Rabbit Angstrom or Nathan Zuckerman, who, most of all, lived.”

In some ways that pretty much sums it all up right there.  Rabbit lived, ran and fucked, so much like an actual rabbit.  Each of the four Rabbit novels centers around a period of Rabbit’s life in which he seems to stray.  Except for the carrying over of one of those affairs in the first years after the third book, we never get much of a sense of Rabbit’s fidelity during the time between the novels.  But in a way, they are irrelevant.  These are the documents of Rabbit’s life.

Rabbit, Run was Updike’s second novel but his fourth book.  He came out of a period of American letters when people still branched out.  He started with a book of poetry, then his first novel (the excellent The Poorhouse Fair), then a great collection of short stories (many of which had appeared in The New Yorker), followed by Rabbit, Run (how the Viking Portable Library has never put together a portable Updike is beyond me – more than any other writer of the second half of the twentieth century, his writings reached across the stylistic divide – writing stories, poems, novels, criticism, all of which was critically acclaimed).  Rabbit, Run is the story of a man who hasn’t quite grown up.  “So tall, he seems an unlikely rabbit, but the breadth of white face, the pallor of his blue irises, and a nervous flutter under his brief nose as he stabs a cigarette into his mouth partially explain the nickname, which was given to him when he was a boy.”  He was a star basketball player who has married and now has a wife and child to support (“He married relatively late, when he was twenty-three and she was two years out of high school, still scarcely adult, with shy small breasts that when she lay down flattened against her chest so that they were only there as a tipped softness.”).  Just a few pages into the book, Rabbit goes out to pick up his son and some cigarettes and doesn’t come home.  He runs, on foot at first, then in his car, away from his life, his family, his responsibility.  He is a man very much lost in the last year of the Eisenhower administration.  He stays with his old coach at first, determined to keep something good about his life alive, then meets Ruth and starts to stay with her, but things for Rabbit are never easy: “He looks in her face and seems to read in its shadows a sad expression of forgiveness, as if she knows that at the moment of release, the root of love, he betrayed her by feeling despair.”  This is not yet the Updike of Couples or the Rabbit of the later books.  This early infidelity is marked by doubt and despair and nothing good will come of it.  As Rabbit himself says, “If you have the guts to be yourself, other people’ll pay your price.”

Rabbit, Run is the weakest of the books.  Updike had not yet developed his perfect style for alligning Rabbit’s life and the outside world.  But it is a very good book and even had he not written the other books, it would be a major part of Updike’s oeuvre.   The seeds of tragedy that will haunt the later books (Rabbit eventually returns to his wife and their baby girl drowns), as well as the perfect ending.  Each of the books in turn will have endings that seem to so perfectly simplify everything down to a few choice words, not sentences, but just words that seem to form coherent ideas.  As here, where the final complete sentence leads so perfectly into the last lines: “His hands lift of their own and he feels the wind on his ears even before, his heels hitting heavily on the pavement at first but with an effortless gathering out of a kind of sweet panic growing lighter and quicker and quieter, he runs.  Ah: runs.  Runs.”

That was the Rabbit of 1959, the Updike of 1959, a young man struggling to make his mark.  While not much will happen in the ensuing decade to Rabbit Angstrom, the world will open up to Updike.  He publishes The Centaur in 1963 and wins the American Book Award.  Then comes Couples, a runaway best-seller documenting the sexual travails of the late sixties, the book that permanently puts Updike on the cultural map and lands him his first TIME Magazine cover.  Then, at decade’s end, he would return to the Rabbit story.

Ten years later, man is about to walk on the moon and Rabbit is one of the men who “emerge pale from the little printing plant at four sharp, ghosts for an instant, blinking, until the outdoor light overcomes the look of constant indoor light clinging to them.”  This is the printing office where Rabbit had now worked alongside his father for a decade, living an absent life between novels.  But now that we have returned to him, he has returned to life.

At first it is Janice who has found a lover, Charlie, her co-worker at her father’s Toyota dealership.  “One of the nice things about having a lover, it makes you think about everything anew,” Rabbit thinks to himself after realizing it.  “The rest of your life becomes a kind of movie, flat and even rather funny.”  Then Rabbit seems to bring the ending decade back home with him.  He suddenly becomes both father and lover to a young girl named Jill while also taking in a radical black named Skeeter.  Together they form a clouded triangle of sex and drugs and violence, both physical and emotional.  As in the novel before, Rabbit somehow manages to come out through the other side, though the pain inflicted on everyone else in the novel seems to leave lasting scars.   But again, by the end of the novel (in some ways my favorite – one of the few books that I feel like I could have written and I think the novel that inspired me to write mostly in present tense), things have moved towards a sweet perfection of sentences and then words: “He finds this inward curve and slips along it, sleeps.  He.  She.  Sleeps.  O.K.?”

Another ten years down the road and Rabbit is readying himself for the Reagan years.  A small-town conservative, a supporter of the Vietnam War, generally disdainful of minorities, having become well-off by ending up with his father-in-law’s Toyota dealership, Rabbit is the right man in the right place.  Harry reminds himself “When you think of the dead, you got to be grateful.”  He has many dead to be grateful to now; his daughter and Jill, his parents and his father-in-law.  “The great thing about the dead, they make space.”  He is ready to push the dead aside along with the economy and the oil crisis.  He is ready for a revolution that hasn’t yet happened.

The opening chapter gives us an older, more settled Harry, but not necessarily a more mature or smarter one.  He is obsessed with the Toyota he’s pushing on some poor hick kid when he suddenly gets the idea that the girl the hick is with might be the daughter of Ruth, the woman he shacked up with when he first ran.  The novel moves forward in this direction, with his obsession on this as his son returns from college an emotional wreck, demanding a place in the dealership and burdening the household with a girlfriend who’s not really one.

Updike brilliantly grounds all the Rabbit books very much in their time period, the advantage of writing them in the various decades.  While the second book begins the week of the Moon Landing, Rabbit is Rich is in a very different world, one of Polaroids and microwaves.  “Together they sit through Battlestar Gallactica and enough of The Love Boat to know it’s not one of the good cruises.”  We’re past the hedonism of the late sixties and early seventies, yet Rabbit and his friends end up trading partners while on vacation, a trade that leads to long-term affairs.  He desperately wants Cindy, the young “plump brown-backed honey still smelling of high school” that is the third wife of his friend Webb, but instead is taken away for love-making sessions with Thelma: “He senses intelligence in her but intelligence in women has never much interested him.”  Before he can have Cindy, family tragedy brings them back from the sunny Caribbean to wintry Brewer, Pennsylvania, the town that Updike creates to hold this world.  All of the things in his life converge: his hatred of his mother-in-law, frustration with his son (and approaching grandchild), temptation with Thelma while pinning for Cindy, that all moves forward, like the books before it, towards sentences, then, finally, words:  “Through all this she has pushed to be here, in his lap, his hands, a real presence hardly weighing anything but alive.  Fortune’s hostage, heart’s desire, a granddaughter.  His.  Another nail in his coffin.  His.”

John Updike, around the time of "Rabbit Remembered"

That feeling of death is present from the very first lines of Rabbit at Rest:

Standing amid the tan, excited post-Christmas crowd at the Southwest Florida Regional Airport, Rabbit Angstrom has a funny sudden feeling that what he has come to meet, what’s floating in unseen about to land, is not his son Nelson and daughter-in-law Pru and their two children but something more ominous and intimately his: his own death, shaped vaguely like an airplane.  The sensation chills him, above and beyond the terminal air-conditioning.  But, then, facing Nelson has made him feel uneasy for thirty years.

Rabbit is in his mid-fifties, his wife is determined to make a life as a real estate agent, his son is addicted to cocaine and putting the family at financial and physical risk and yet, somehow, Rabbit is at rest.  (Updike has come so far by this point, that one of the epigraphs for the novel is a quote from Rabbit is Rich: “Rabbit basks above that old remembered world, rich, at rest.”)

I have never been a fan of biographical criticism, finding it the lazy way to dissect a writer’s work.  But in the Rabbit books, there seems to be a revisionist biography.  After all, Harry Angstrom was born around the time of Updike in the same area of Pennsylvania.  He seems to be Updike’s fear of what he might have become had he not been the valedictorian who went to Harvard and immediately from there to the pages of The New Yorker.  Rabbit spends decades there, only to escape to the humid desolation of retiree Florida to play golf and have the occasional heart attack.  But it is a measure of Updike’s genius as a chronicler of late twentieth century America to so perfectly capture this man who really was so different.  Ironically, the final piece on Rabbit, “Rabbit Remembered” from Licks of Love, published in 2000 and taking place a decade after Harry’s death is the weak link.  It doesn’t quite go with the books because it lacks that very vitality that I argued for in my letter to the NYTBR.  Rabbit is alive (in spite of what you might read on Wikipedia, he is still alive when the final novel ends – I heard Updike give a talk at the Portland Arts and Lectures Series in 1996 years before “Rabbit Remembered” and he said that he is often asked why he killed Rabbit and that he didn’t kill Rabbit, but Rabbit had the heart attack, got very sick and then he ended the book.) and he breathes life into all of the pages.  Even when he makes the unbelievably stupid move of having sex with his daughter-in-law, it is still a grasp for life, a desperate hope to push away the encroaching heart attack.  It is not the saving of his granddaughter from drowning that does it (an echo of the daughter he wasn’t able to save), but the very act of playing basketball that does him in.

Then it comes down to the final lines, so poignant and perfect, like the novels that came before.  Father and son, joined in pain, closer than they have ever been.  And again, like so often, we have sentences.  Then words.  Words.

“Rabbit thinks he should maybe say more, the kid looks wildly expectant, but enough.  Maybe.  Enough.”

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