Rabbit Redux by John Updike

It must look like I’m a sluggish reader since I have had RABBIT REDUX listed as my current read for a couple of months. It looks worse than it is, first I don’t list technical books I’m reading,  or books that I don’t like. The second reason is I have read Rabbit Redux three times since listing it.

I’ve read a lot of John Updike’s books over the years, but to say he is my favourite author is not correct. Many of his books I don’t care for. Rabbit Redux is one I care for a great deal. It is full of humour, irony, contemporary history, and all the weaknesses and foolishness of people. The writing gives a fresh intimate way of seeing the characters.

There are five books in the “Rabbit” series. Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit is Rich; Rabbit at Rest; and Rabbit Remembered. The last book is not in the same class as the others. Best to forget about it, rather than drag down such an amazing group. Each of the Rabbit books was set 10 years apart, Rabbit, Run was 1960, Rabbit Redux was 1970, and during that time as we move forward we see all the characters grow older, but not wiser. Just as interesting, we see the world change, Vietnam, hippies, drugs, Nixon.

This was my third reading of a moderately long novel. But before I got to half way though, I began to wonder if I should give up reading all other fiction apart from the four Rabbit books. An outlandish idea?

Rabbit Redux felt so good to read, I wondered why I spent so much time reading novels that were not a tenth as interesting. When a new novel comes out, the publishers try to get as many sales as possible. They push the new books for all they are worth. I have found many of them disappointing, even when they have won numerous awards. Books that were published years ago are left to wither away, often out of print. In fact, most books would be out of print if it were not for Kindle and Kobo eBooks.

I sometimes get the feeling that the Rabbit collection would have been more popular if it had a different name. Rabbit is the nickname of Harry Angstrom, a man in his late 30s. Nothing to do with Rabbits.
Rabbit is not too bright, he says stupid things, does stupid things, thinks stupid things. Let us be honest, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom would have been glad to vote for Donald Trump.

John Updike said that writing about Rabbit’s experiences in life, allowed him to open up a wider viewpoint. For example Rabbit was passionate about defending American involvement in the Vietnam war. Consequently Rabbit got into heated arguments about anything patriotic. He was very supportive of the war, better to fight them up there than down here. So the topic often came up, and we got to hear both sides of the arguments.  This was the time of flower power, Woodstock, Martin Luther King, Vietnam, feminism, and drugs.

The story begins with Rabbit getting annoyed with his wife who has not come home from her job at the Toyota franchise. She has not come home because she is having an affair with the car salesman. Rabbit finds a note, telling him that she is going away for a while, don’t try to find her.

Harry goes to a bar where he meets an Afro-American from work. Soon he is smoking pot and taking an 18 year-old white girl home with him. She is a wealthy kid who has run away from home, looking for somewhere to stay. Jill stays with Rabbit in a sexual relationship, but before long she brings home a Negro, Skeeter an ex-Viet soldier, who is expecting a racial revolution to start any day. Skeeter is full of talk about revolution, religion, politics, Negro history and the faults of Caucasians.

The section where Skeeter moves in, while clever, and perceptive, gets a bit tedious. It just goes on for too long. What makes it worse is that Skeeter is an unpleasant, self-centred, person, somewhat twisted by his own philosophy. His main occupation is selling drugs, supplying Rabbit with pot, and providing heroin to young Jill. The white middle-class neighbours are not happy about the situation in the house, believing it is commune in the making. One night they burn the house down, killing Jill who was zonked out on heroin when the fire consumed the home. Skeeter heads off into the unknown, Rabbit is confused and unhappy, while his thirteen year old son who admired Jill, becomes depressed.

Rabbit’s wife is having second thoughts about her affair with the car salesman, when Rabbit’s prostitute sister turns up, promptly having sex with the wife’s car salesman before heading back to LA.

I should add that the book contains quite a bit of swearing. It must have been a surprise when it was first published in 1971. These days it is accepted without a blink. Still, we are talking about the full monty here.

There is so much to like in this novel, the descriptions of their lives, the streets, shops, houses, the food they eat, what’s on TV, travelling on the bus, his working day, watching the moon landing, it all adds up to a rich tapestry of life as it was in 1970. Reading Rabbit Redux is like watching a vivid interesting movie of their life. We are voyeurs peeping through a secret window where we can see Rabbit trying to make sense of his life back in 1970.
This is a novel worth re-reading many times.
I’ve written about Rabbit, Run before, here.

Marcus Clark

 

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