Rabbit Is Rich
To make the everyday lives of ordinary people interesting requires a special talent and skill. A temptation for a novelist when writing about the mundane affairs of ordinary existence is to color the action, trying to make it appear more dramatic than it actually is. Writers often prefer to portray extreme situations and to focus on the crises and dramatic encounters in life, rather than revealing the hidden emotions behind the apparently even surfaces of most lives. John Updike always has been especially effective when prying beneath this veneer and exposing the frustrations and pains all people carry beneath their social masks. In Rabbit Is Rich, his third book in the chronicles of the life and times of Rabbit Angstrom, he is near the top of his form.
Rabbit, Run’s (1960) gangling basketball hero unable to cope with real life, who became a middle-class man grasping for his soul in Rabbit Redux (1971) a decade later, now is an overweight, middle-aged Toyota dealer, financially successful, but still seeking the peace and satisfaction that American life is supposed to provide but which always seem to be withheld. Not a complicated man, he is willing to settle back and accept the material success that life finally has blessed him with, but events conspire to keep him from enjoying his complacency. With this book, Rabbit Angstrom’s place in literary history as an American Everyman is secure.
America is suffering from double-digit inflation; the energy crisis is mounting; Skylab may fall on his head and kill him in his sleep—anything can happen—but basically Rabbit is an optimist. He wants to believe in the future, both his own future and his son’s future. He finds it difficult to accept the gloomy prophecies of the pontificators around him. Despite the newspapers and television, despite the pressures of trying to survive in an often violent and frightening world, Rabbit has been able to isolate himself from much of what goes on in this world. Only when his son, Nelson, returns to Brewer and the family circle does Rabbit discover to what degree he has managed to insulate himself.
Rabbit Is Rich is, more than anything else, a novel of father and son, a novel of the perennial generational conflict that is always with us. Each generation reacts against the world in its own way, and that way more often than not is incomprehensible to the generations that preceded it. One generation’s revolution may turn out to be the conservatism or passivity of another generation. Instinctively resisting the ties of family and responsibility, Rabbit found it very difficult to settle down when he was young. He craved freedom, adventure, change. Only after two decades of confusion and struggle has he finally been able to find satisfaction in the middle-class comforts and security that he has been told repeatedly he ought to cherish and accept as his destiny. His son, now a young man, sees the world from the opposite point of view. Nelson matured during the chaotic, turbulent 1960’s and 1970’s, and now is quite ready to settle down, assume a position in the small-business community, and grow fat and contented just as generations before him have. Rabbit cannot understand how a young man such as Nelson can be ready to give up the freedom and lack of responsibilities of young manhood in order to embrace a premature middle age.
On no level do Nelson and Rabbit agree. When Nelson returns to Brewer after dropping out of Kent State College and spending time in a Colorado commune, Rabbit is curious about his son, more than anything else, but soon he is appalled by the limp, complacent figure that he sees his son has become. Ripe for a mid-life crisis, Rabbit is catapulted into a bout of genuine self-analysis and personal confrontation by this prolonged, painful battle with his son.
Rabbit Angstrom, from his first appearance in 1960, has been a fundamentally decent, somewhat limited man who feels yearnings that he cannot wholly explain. Part of his agony is a deeply felt hunger for a meaning to his existence. Although no philosopher, Rabbit has an existential need for a reason to his life. He tries to find this meaning in marriage, in parenthood, in materialism, as he once—briefly—found it in basketball and in the well-being of a perfectly-tuned, athletic young body, but every reason that he grasps now crumbles in his fist. He survives by virtue of his own, inherent, good nature, but he will die with that gnawing in his gut still unsatisfied.
The action of the novel is neither unusual nor thrilling; the characters are not bizarre or remarkable. Through the...
(The entire section is 1900 words.)