The Penguin Modern Classics editions of Updike’s Rabbit quartet (Run, Redux, Rich, and at Rest) contain an afterword by the author which in some ways makes the reviewer redundant, offering insight into the composition of the novels to which few could hope to achieve. Of course, I am going to have a try.
Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom is a middle aged, blue-collar American. His wife is sleeping with a work colleague, and soon leaves Rabbit and his teenage son Nelson. Harry is in a dead end job as a print-setter, which even in 1969, the novel’s setting, was clearly becoming obsolete. The reproductions of Harry’s set type which appear in the novel are cruelly riddled with errors, suggesting he isn’t even any good at his job. While the narrative point of view is largely Harry’s/Rabbit’s, we do not gain much insight into his feelings. He seems to take his wife’s betrayal in his stride, although it obviously hits him harder than he realises, as is shown later in the novel when his behaviour begins to get more erratic. Invited out by a work colleague, a black man who Harry would normally not associate, Harry picks up Jill, a wealthy 18 year old young woman fleeing suburban Connecticut. Although more like his lost daughter than a replacement wife, she moves in with him and Nelson. Later her ‘friend’ Skeeter, a radical Vietnam veteran follows her and also moves in, causing scandal in the neighbourhood. While Harry and Nelson are out visiting friends the house suffers an arson attack, and Jill is killed. Finally, in the aptly named Safe Haven motel, Harry reconciles with his wife, after a fashion, and they fall asleep together.
The period setting of the novel provides an important backdrop to its events. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land on the moon – Harry watches the landing on a fuzzy black and white television in his mother’s bedroom. Race riots break out across America, and the war in Vietnam continues to divide the country. Harry is defiantly conservative in the face of several protest voices, not least Skeeter, who challenges him on issues of race and the war.
It has to be said that Harry is not a pleasant character. He is unashamedly racist, sexually exploits the clearly vulnerable Jill, who is half his age, and takes pleasure from hurting her during sex. He beats his wife when he finds out she has been unfaithful, and is a poor father. He has many other faults which I am not going to spell out here – suffice to say he is a hard hero to like.
It’s equally hard to avoid the simple reading of this novel that has Harry as an extended metaphor for America. Updike specifically invites this comparison in his afterword – “The character of Harry Angstrom was, for me, a way in – a ticket to the America all around me.” Skeeter’s “invasion” of Harry’s home, hard to understand otherwise, is representative of the rise of black power in America, the intrusion of what Harry/Updike sees as an alien race. His values – paternity, patriotism, fidelity – are under attack from all around. In other words this is a deeply conservative novel in which Harry struggles to at first resist, then come to terms with the changes sweeping America in the late 60’s. He is a victim throughout the novel, weakly accepting what happens to him, not challenging his wife’s lover when he confronts him, taking redundancy without complaint, even spinelessly accepting Skeeter’s moving into his house and sleeping with Jill – he doesn’t like it, but he can do nothing about it. He has a sharp tongue towards his family and friends, but is a profoundly weak man. The reader feels sorry for Harry, perhaps, but that’s the extent of it.
Reading the second novel in a quartet is not the best way to approach a writer’s output (I started the Harry Potter series by reading The Goblet of Fire, stupidly) but I am torn on whether I want to read more about Rabbit. What might bring me back, one day, is Updike’s undoubted way with a sentence:
“How sad, how strange, we make companions out of air and hurt them, so they will defy us, completing creation”.