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Rabbit is Rich ~ A Capsule Book Review

Rabbit is Rich ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

John Updike (1933-2009) was an American writer who wrote compellingly about ordinary people. He was a chronicler of his age, in much the same way that F. Scott Fitzgerald and John O’Hara were of their age.

Updike’s series of four “Rabbit” novels (Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, Rabbit at Rest) are about the different stages in the life of one Harold (Harry) “Rabbit” Angstrom: high school basketball star, linotype operator, husband, son, father, brother, lover, and Toyota dealer.

Rabbit Angstrom is a sort of contemporary antihero. He is flawed. He is less than admirable. He is sentimental. He is sex-obsessed (as Updike male characters always are). In Rabbit is Rich, he is forty-six years old and overweight, in what you might call the third quarter of his life. He has reached the stage of his life where he knows affluence for the first time, thanks to his father-in-law, Fred Springer, who brought him into his Toyota dealership in Brewer, Pennsylvania, and then conveniently died, leaving Rabbit in charge. Rabbit and his ditzy wife Janice live with his crabby, Charlie’s Angels-loving mother-in-law, Bessie, in her stately house.

Rabbit and Janice have a son, Nelson, a confused and rebellious young man who dropped out of Kent State one year short of graduating. Nelson has just married pregnant Pru (whose real name is Teresa). Pru and Nelson seem mismatched. We know it’s a union that isn’t going to last. Rabbit is sexually drawn to Pru. (When it comes to sex, nothing is off limits with these people.) Nelson doesn’t want to return to college but instead wants to work at the not-very-successful-these-days Toyota lot with his father. Rabbit will have to let one of his long-term employees go to make a place for Nelson and he doesn’t want to do that. The women in his life (his mother-in-law and his wife) are pressuring him to bring Nelson on. He knows that Nelson will mess it up, as he has messed up everything else in his life.

Rabbit thinks a lot about death. He can’t stop thinking about his deceased working-class parents and about the other people in his life who have died. He and Janice had an infant daughter named Becky who Janice accidentally drowned in the bathtub when she was drunk. Rabbit has, or believes he has, an illegitimate daughter from an affair he had twenty years ago. He is sentimental about his supposed illegitimate daughter; he fantasizes about encountering her and introducing himself to her as her father, even though she believes another man holds that title.

Rabbit is Rich is a slice of late-1970s life. It’s a rich reading experience about marriage, disillusionment, mortality, fatherhood and success. It shows us how good contemporary American literature (after Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald) can be in the hands of a master. If you are a reader, you owe it to yourself to read all four of the Rabbit novels in order.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp