Sunday, January 27, 2008

Rabbit is Rich by John Updike

Running out of gas, Rabbit Angstrom thinks as he stands behind the summer-dusty windows of the Springer Motors display room watching the traffic go by on Route 111, traffic somehow thin and scared compared to what it used to be. The fucking world is running out of gas.

John Updike's third Rabbit Angstrom novel, Rabbit is Rich, opens up to find Rabbit in an unaccustomed state: He is satisfied. In the ten years that have passed since Rabbit Redux, Rabbit has started working at his father-in-law's Toyota dealership and, ultimately, upon Springer's passing, found himself in charge of it. It is a cushy job and provides him with financial success. His relationship with his wife, while never quite what one might call affectionate, has become stable and intimate, and he no longer feels the pull to run. Rabbit has even made peace with Charlie Stavros, the man who cuckolded him in Rabbit Redux, working with him side-by-side at Springer Motors and going so far as to call him one of his best friends.

But satisfaction causes a few problems of its own, of course--the backdrop is spelled out in the opening paragraph above: During the 1979 gas crisis, Rabbit himself feels his life--and his country--"running out of gas," losing spirit and movement to gravity, torpor, and "satisfaction." No longer are we in a world where Rabbit Angstrom can run off and find a girl to fuck--he seems to stumble upon them without looking in the first two novels--because he's far too old and it seems far less appealing. When his son Nelson brings home two girls in succession, his friend Melanie and his knocked-up fiancee Pru, he marvels at his own disinterest in having sex with him. Unlike in Rabbit Redux, in which we find Rabbit in a "devil's threesome" with Jill and Skeeter, there are no opportunities for strange trysts and absurd drug-addled affairs. Once, Rabbit sleeps with his friend's wife (they pee on each other, no joke) as part of a wife-swapping scheme, but even that happens on a holiday to the Caribbean, an otherworld far removed from the real time and space of Rabbit's Pennsylvania.

External conflicts frame Rabbit's internal struggles: Foremost is the return of his son Nelson from Kent State, shiftless and angry, looking for a job at Rabbit's Toyota dealership so that he can both support his pregnant fiancee and avoid going back to college, which he feels is phony. Nelson and Rabbit do not understand each other: Rabbit refuses to give Nelson a job and resents his alienation from his son; Nelson seethes with anger and hatred for his father over the tragedies of the first two books (which I will not enumerate for Brent's sake). But unlike Nelson and Rabbit we have the benefit of Rabbit's very youth documented in Rabbit, Run, and we see how much Nelson is like his father, in his frequent nastiness toward Pru, in his stubborn avoidance of his problems, of the way he finally leaves his wife as she is about to give birth and escapes back to Ohio. What Rabbit only knows in a halfway fashion is that much of his resentment toward Nelson stems from how closely Nelson's life is coming to mirror his own. When he insists that Nelson is a "Springer, through and through," we recognize his willful ignorance. And then there is the girl who comes into the dealership one day in whom Rabbit also sees something from himself, and who he believes might be the child his ex-lover from Rabbit Run claims to have aborted.

And then there are the ghosts of the dead, whom Rabbit faces because in the downswing of his own life he faces his own death as well. Rabbit thinks of them while running near his vacation home in the Poconos:

Becky, a mere seed laid to rest, and Jill, a pale seedling held from the sun, hang in the earth, he imagines, like stars, and beyond them there are myriads, whole races like Cambodians, that have drifted into death. He is treading on them all, they are resilient, they are cheering him on, his lungs are burning, his heart hurts, he is a membrane removed from the hosts below, their filaments caress his ankles, he loves the earth, he will never make their mistake and die.

When Updike is really on, I can't think of anything I've ever read more affecting. Though I doubt any of the Rabbit books could be as powerful as the first, I liked this one much more than Rabbit Redux, because it is more full with moments like that one. Updike wisely tones down some of the period details, resisting the impulse to make Rabbit the "prototypical American," as I wrote about that book. Rabbit isn't a metaphor; he's his own man, unique, individual, lonely, and that's why we identify with him.

Up next: Rabbit at Rest.


Christopher said...

A good review of Rabbit is Rich by John Mark Eberhart of the Kansas City Star. Eberhart calls Rich "the comedy of this tetralogy," which is spot on: It is the only one of the four books in which no one dies.

Christopher said...

And here is the link

Brooke said...

One of my professors brought this book up in class today, and was talking about how Updike liked to pile on the extra (unneccesary) details so that you get a more full and comprehensive understanding of his characters and in this case, Rabbit. And then he did a pretty funny imitation of what he thought Rabbit would look like in his car, singing "Hot Stuff" along with the radio. I think you would have appreciated it.

Christopher said...

I expect I would have.