A few weeks ago I finished reading Rabbit is Rich, by John Updike. Rabbit is Rich is the third of four novels that Updike wrote about the life of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. Each novel, written in approximately 10-year intervals, explores some upheaval in Rabbit’s life. In the first, Rabbit, Run, a twenty-six year-old Harry runs out on his wife and their two-year old son; in the second, Rabbit Redux, Harry’s wife runs out on him. Now, in the third novel, it is not Harry that is running but his grown son, Nelson. The novel is rich in voyeuristic detail, complete with scandal and sex. If you haven’t already read any of the Rabbit novels, you had better get started.
The two earlier novels found Rabbit in a state of crisis and longing — he longed for his former glory days as a highschool basket ball star; and crisis, it seemed, was the one stable element in Rabbit’s life. However, in Rabbit is Rich, things seem to be going his way again. In the midst of the 1979 oil crisis, Harry is owner of a fuel-efficient Toyota dealership; business is brisk. Lustful as ever, Harry still manages to remain faithful and healthy as his wife’s former lover is on the decline. But Rabbit seems unsettled by his good fortune; he seems to be waiting for some catastrophe to occur, some other shoe to fall loudly to the floor. Not a creature of the calm, Rabbit self-destructively digs up his own problems, searching through his past infidelities for evidence of a daughter.
But crisis does eventually come, in the form of his twenty-two year-old son Nelson who has dropped out of college and moved back home with Pru, his pregnant girlfriend. Although Rabbit would like his son to finish school, everyone seems bent on Nelson staying, marrying Pru, and working at the family dealership. This is the fate that Nelson is running towards: to make the same mistakes that Rabbit did. So, in true Rabbit fashion, Harry tries to convince Nelson to run the other way:
“Oh, you could just, I don’t know, not make any decision, just disappear for a while. I’d give you the money for that.”
“Money, you’re always offering me money to stay away.”
“Maybe because when I was your age I wanted to get away and I couldn’t. I didn’t have the money. I didn’t have the sense. We tried to send you away to get some sense and you’ve thumbed your nose at it.”
From there the problems pile on. Nelson’s plan to sell gas-guzzling convertibles is cutting into store profits. Rabbit, enamored with a golfing buddy’s twenty-something girlfriend, finds himself unable to focus on his wife — or much of anything else. The price of gold is rising though Harry has traded it all in for silver. Harry again finds himself looking for a way out, or at least some way to save his son from becoming his happy-yet-loathesome self.
Rabbit is Rich is full of richly textured detail. Before there was cheesy reality TV, there was Rabbit Angstrom. Updike is unsparing in his description of Rabbit: his selfishness, his occasional violence, his sexual exploits. In a way, reading about Rabbit is like reading a tabloid: cellulite, scars, and cheating housewives. And in another sense, reading about Rabbit is like reading American history: unbounded enthusiasm, optimism, the feeling of invincibility. Although the world is constantly changing — technology, cars, and sex — Rabbit is still here. Each day brings another reminder of his former glory and current decline; each day the once remarkable past gets further out of his reach. “Each day,” Updike tells us, “he is a little less afraid to die.”
Now shouldn’t you go read these books?