I am very much a fan of John Updike, becoming interested in his work first through his short stories and then extending my reading to his novels. In fact, I would rank him as one of my favorite novel writers, and I appreciate him more and more as I grow older. Reading some of his stuff here and there throughout the last couple decade, I learned that his “Rabbit” books are generally considered his best works. Or, at least, they’re pointed to as his works that best represent his style of writing and display some of his most personal explorations of the human condition. Knowing this, I kind of purposely put off reading the four books. It was through some combination of laziness about buying the books, anticipation about reading them that I allowed to keep growing, and a bit of odd fear that they would be disappointing, that I didn’t read them. On top of that, there is the bizarre feeling that I’d guess fans of music, film, or books often feel; that once you consume the work for the first time you will never be able to experience it in that way again. Anyway, I conveniently found three of the books at a used book sale, and they were even cheaply priced. I bought them and purchased Rabbit Redux separately to complete the series.
The four novels that compromise the “Rabbit” series include:
- Rabbit, Run
- Rabbit Redux
- Rabbit is Rich
- Rabbit at Rest
The books tell the story of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a former high school star turned middle class husband and father living in Brewster, PA (modeled after Reading, PA). Updike’s tales follow Rabbit through he and his loved one’s struggles –untimely deaths, alcoholism, job frustration- as well as the more tender moments of suburban life. Rabbit has a palette of personality traits that make him, at times, dryly witty, wonderfully childlike, cold and uncaring, and downright depressing. He’s probably not a person that you’ll always like, but that adds to the complexity of his character.
Rabbit Redux is the second novel written in the series and is set in 1969, ten years after the first novel. I found it to be a timely read because of how divisive the political and social climate is in America; a climate that really hasn’t been seen since the Vietnam era. It is profoundly interesting to inhabit the mind of somebody dealing with the chaos and weirdness of the late 1960s, when it seemed like everybody in America was desperately trying to find their footing in the culture.
If I were to discuss reading Updike with someone unfamiliar with his style, I would point to a couple things to be aware of:
- His writing is often very poetic and detailed. In fact, becoming a poet was his original aspiration. If the page in the story is about eating dinner, he might use an entire paragraph to describe how the character butters a piece of bread. Updike famously described this as “giving the mundane it’s beautiful due”. This might seem tedious to read, but if you give it the time and effort, it often develops a character or setting in a hyper-detailed way. If it’s difficult to digest, think of those very wordy sections as you would a poem. Read those dense chunks by themselves, close the book briefly and discern what the words meant, and then return to the flow of the chapter.
- He depicts very, very graphic sex scenes. Some may feel differently, but I don’t believe that his scenes ever have a pornographic, filthy feel. That being said, they are incredibly detailed and frank in nature.
In all honesty, I don’t think any kind of short review would do this novel justice. It’s difficult to discuss any key points without digressing into the many layers of Rabbit and his family members, which would get much too long for a blog post. Simply put, this is the kind of writing that absolutely awes me in its intensity and power. Beyond mere entertainment, novels like the ones in the “Rabbit” series venture into studies of ourselves that I believe are distinctly important. They are honest to the point of being uncomfortable and troubling, yet uplifting in their moments of redemption and joy. If that’s what you’re looking for in your reading, Updike’s work doesn’t disappoint.