Rabbit Is Rich is a novel about a middle-aged man—a fitting image for the spiritual condition of the United States at the end of the 1970’s. At forty-six, Rabbit is successful, but his expansive waistline reminds him of his declining energies as well as the encroachment of death. Updike updates Sinclair Lewis’s novel Babbitt (1922) about the ever-aspiring businessman George F. Babbitt. The remaining sparks of vitality in Rabbit seek to combat the forces of exhaustion that fill the novel. Indeed, the sense of things running down and images of falling dominate the book.
The novel is set during the summer and fall of 1979 and the first few weeks of 1980. In those last months of the Jimmy Carter administration, Americans face long lines at the gasoline pumps, high inflation rates, and the continuing stalemate over the American hostages in Iran. Rabbit is not worried, however, for he is a co-owner of Brewer’s Toyota agency, since his father-in-law, Fred Springer, died in 1974. He and Janice have been living in the Springer house since their own house was destroyed by fire in 1969. Their son, Nelson, has been going to college at Kent State University. While Rabbit struggles with his son, he is haunted by the ghosts of his past—his dead daughter, his dead mother’s voice, and memories of Jill and Skeeter. Rabbit imagines that they embrace him, sustain him, and cheer him on in the autumn of his life.
In the first two Rabbit novels, Rabbit was out of step with his decade. In the complacent 1950’s, he ran; in the frenetic 1960’s, he watched. In Rabbit Is Rich, he is running again, but this time more in rhythm with the 1970’s. Rabbit jogs, an activity in keeping with the fitness craze that grew in that decade. The novel begins with Rabbit thinking “running out of gas,” a phrase that resonates at several levels. As a middle-aged man, Rabbit knows that his energies are diminishing. Because of the gasoline crisis, he sees America perhaps...
(The entire section is 818 words.)