The Novels

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

With his sixth novel, Rabbit Redux, published in 1971, John Updike resumed the life story of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the antiheroic protagonist of his acclaimed second novel, Rabbit, Run. Another decade and several more novels followed before Updike came forth with his third record of Harry’s adventures, appropriately entitled Rabbit Is Rich. Rabbit at Rest, which appeared nearly a decade later, is the final volume of the tetralogy. The Rabbit Angstrom books provide an accurate, absorbing, and aesthetically satisfying social history of middle-class North America from the 1950’s into the 1980’s; taken together, the novels may well constitute Updike’s finest achievement.

Born in 1933, a year later than his novelistic creator, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is at times an Everyman of sorts, at other times a kind of holy fool, yet even at his most disgraceful moments he appears to represent the voice of common sense. His mundane adventures, meanwhile, are consistently backlighted by contemporaneous events in political and cultural history, to which they may frequently be seen as a response. The end product of such a technique is an impressive social chronicle, brought close to the reader by the generally amiable, if not always admirable, character of Harry Angstrom himself.

When Harry first emerges on the scene, in Rabbit, Run, he is twenty-six years old, a veteran of Stateside service during the Korean War, married not long thereafter to Janice Springer, who happened to be carrying his child. Although demonstrably intelligent, Harry did not attend college and is thus limited in his job prospects: At the start of Rabbit, Run, he is employed as a demonstrator of kitchen gadgets, barely managing to support his young son and pregnant wife. His only claim to fame, already growing stale, derives from his erstwhile prowess on the high school basketball court.

Janice, daughter of a rather prosperous used car dealer, has grown lazy and apathetic, with an unfortunate fondness for strong drink. One evening, the sordidness of his domestic scene catches up with Harry and he flees, driving aimlessly about the countryside until daybreak. Unwilling to return to either home or job, he seeks refuge in the garret inhabited by Marty Tothero, his former basketball coach, who has quit his job in disgrace. It is through Tothero that Harry meets Ruth Leonard, moving soon thereafter into Ruth’s apartment.

Ruth Leonard, an unemployed secretary of Harry’s own age, is perhaps less a prostitute than a “kept” woman with several occasional “keepers.” At Harry’s urging, however, she soon reserves her attentions for Harry alone, reluctantly falling in love as she does so. To her credit, Ruth is both more affectionate and “better company” than Janice; she is also, in general, a good influence on Harry, allowing him the opportunity to sort out the tangled threads of his life.

It is while he is living with Ruth that Harry is first befriended by Jack Eccles, rector of the Episcopal church attended by Janice’s parents. Although ostensibly sent by the Springers to prepare a reconciliation, Jack becomes fascinated by Harry’s simple yet strong personal faith and seemingly adopts him as a separate case, unrelated to that of his estranged wife. Soon the two young men are playing golf together, and it is Eccles who finds steady work for Harry in the garden of an elderly widow. Still living with Ruth and working for Mrs. Smith, who adores him, Harry leads an idyllic life that is cut short only by the birth of his and Janice’s baby, a daughter to be named Rebecca.

Reluctantly recalled by Eccles to face his true responsibilities, Harry gamely attempts to repair his relationship with Janice, doing most of the housecleaning himself. Janice, however, has learned little or nothing from their separation, and it is not long before Harry escapes again, returning to Ruth’s apartment only to find that Ruth is not there. No sooner has Harry left the flat than Janice begins drinking heavily, recklessly, in an effort to console herself: Enveloped in an alcoholic haze, her reflexes dangerously impaired, she accidentally drowns baby Rebecca while attempting to give the child her bath.

Perhaps inevitably, given their respective personalities, Harry and Janice will blame each other for Rebecca’s death; after all, reasons Janice, the accident would not have happened if Harry had not walked out on her. As befits the title Rabbit, Run, in keeping also with his athletic conditioning and background, Harry has spent much of his time running, literally as well as figuratively. Thus will he flee the scene of Rebecca’s funeral, running as if for his life with Father Eccles in ineffectual pursuit. Deciding thereafter to resume his affair with Ruth, generally pleased to learn that she is pregnant with his child, Harry suddenly balks at the thought of divorce and remarriage, finding himself on the run once again, with no particular destination in sight or in mind as Rabbit, Run comes to an end.

Written almost completely in the narrative present tense with occasional shifts in point of view, exploiting also the “free indirect discourse” borrowed by James Joyce from Gustave Flaubert, Rabbit, Run is notable for its narrative technique as well as for its contribution to the tradition of social realism exemplified by the works of Sinclair Lewis and John O’Hara. In its evocation of rural Pennsylvania and its people, Rabbit, Run is, in fact, strongly reminiscent of O’Hara except in the area of technical innovation, a refinement which O’Hara generally eschewed. At the same time, the novel speaks eloquently of and for a younger generation both liberated and alienated by its potential freedom. A decade later, borrowing his Latinate title from the medical profession, Updike would show Harry Angstrom “led back,” “recovered,” even recuperated by the society that he once sought to flee.

At the start of Rabbit Redux the reader learns that Harry, reconciled with Janice not long after the baby’s funeral, has been employed ever since as a Linotype operator in the same shop where his father still works as a printer. By 1969, however, both men’s jobs are threatened by the imminent prospect of automation. Also threatened, perhaps even more seriously than before, is Harry’s marriage to Janice: Employed by her father in the office of his new Toyota dealership, Janice has commenced a torrid affair with one Charlie Stavros, Springer Motors’ top car salesman. No sooner has Harry confronted Janice with his suspicions than she moves out of the ranch-style tract home where they now live, ostensibly to clear her head at her parents’ summer cottage but in fact to share Stavros’ small apartment.

To a greater extent than in the earlier novel, current events loom large in Rabbit Redux; prior to Janice’s flight, Harry engages Charlie Stavros, a liberal, in a heated discussion of the war in Vietnam; not long thereafter, he reflectively watches the televised landing of American astronauts on the moon. Janice’s departure has created a rent in the surface of Harry’s presumably well-ordered life, and before long the world rushes in from outside: Alternately fascinated and repelled, Harry finds himself playing host to two representatives of the youthful counterculture: Jill Pendleton, a runaway from an affluent Connecticut family, and the black man known only as Skeeter, a fugitive from justice, possibly the son or brother of one of Harry’s coworkers at the print shop. Thirteen-year-old Nelson Angstrom, housed with his father for the unspecified duration of his mother’s defection, soon develops a hopeless crush on the eighteen-year-old Jill, even as Jill divides her physical favors between Harry and Skeeter under Nelson’s watchful eyes. Skeeter, meanwhile, is determined to raise Harry’s middle-American, conservative consciousness with liberal doses of illegal drugs and underground political philosophy, conducting responsive readings from the works of Eldridge Cleaver and others.

Predictably, the cohabitation of Harry and Nelson with a black militant and a white female “hippie” begins to provoke gossip, and worse; on one occasion,...

(The entire section is 3404 words.)