Twentieth Century Literature
Coverage: 1955-2012 (Vol. 1, No. 1 - Vol. 58, No. 4)
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Subjects: Language & Literature, Humanities
Collections: Arts & Sciences III Collection, JSTOR Essential Collection, Language & Literature Collection
Perhaps, THE great novelist of his generation, Updike is best known for his brilliant essay on Ted Williams' last game (Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu) & his series of Rabbit novels. As the first of these opens, Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom is a 26 year old former High School basketball star, who finds himself trapped (like a rabbit, get it) in a marriage that is on the rocks, with a young son and a job he loathes--demonstrating a kitchen gadget called the MagiPeeler. Coming home from work one day, Harry stops to play hoops with some neighborhood kids & revels in his ability to tool on them, until he starts sucking wind. When he gets home his pregnant wife is drunk & he goes out to get their son from his Mom's house, but ends up driving to West Virginia instead. Stopping at a roadside cafe and examining the clientele he wonders, "Is it just these people I'm outside, or is it all America?"
Rabbit decides to bail out on his family, but wants to get some advice from his High School Basketball coach, who proceeds to set him up with a semi-pro whore. Rabbit moves in with her & when he sneaks home to get some his clothes, he is corralled by the family minister, who asks him one of the great questions of the Age of Divorce: Do clean clothes mean so much to you? Whycling to that decency if trampling on others is so easy?
Harry, of course, is unable to answer this question, but he agrees to meet with the minister again &
they become golf partners. Meanwhile, Harry takes a job as a gardener & lives with his trollop. But when his wife gives birth to a daughter, he moves back home (leaving the now pregnant other woman behind) & takes a job at his father-in-law's used car lot.
When one night Harry decides that he must have sex (it's a little opaque but I believe he wished to enjoy anal pleasures) his wife spurns him & Harry takes off again. He knows he should go home but "Something held him back...the feeling that somewhere there was something better for him than listening to babies cry and cheating people in used-car lots..." Meanwhile, as Harry wanders about, his wife proceeds to get drunk & while trying to give the baby a bath, accidentally drowns her.
At the funeral, Harry turns to his wife and says, "Don't look at me, I didn't kill her",then runs away. He goes to his other woman & tells her she has to have the baby, but hardly meets with a friendly reception. He goes out for some groceries and just starts running--Run, Rabbit, Run.
There is one fact that lies at the core of this novel and prevents us from developing much interest in it's events; Rabbit Angstrom is a prick. I'd read this series before, but forgotten just how unlikable he is.
Richard Ford must have consciously plagiarized this novel, because I don't think the subconscious could have achieved such total similarity between Rabbit and The Sportswriter. So my criticism is much the same. Rabbit, like the Sportswriter, is completely self-centered. His job isn't good enough for him, his wife isn't good enough for him, his life isn't good enough, and so, he's perfectly willing to destroy what he has & abandon the obligations he's taken on, in order to go in search of something better.
But then, even as he destroys the supports that underpin the lives of those around him, he has the gall to bemoan the absence of God as a support in his life. There is nothing more annoying than these Iron John-type men, who, on the one hand, revel in the freedom that they've gained with the demise of social structures like the nuclear family and the Church, but, on the other hand, caterwaul about how they've lost their way & can't find anything to believe in anymore.
So ultimately I come to the same conclusion as I did in my Sportswriter review; Updike writes so well that we are carried along despite ourselves, but we're left wanting more out of him--some editorial judgment about Rabbit as he exists (how does a man justify his concern for clean clothes when he's destroying his wife & children?) or some development by Rabbit toward being a better man. Instead, Rabbit ends the book as he began it, running away from his commitments.