John Updike, who was born in 1932 and died in 2009, was one of three American authors to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction more than once. He won for Rabbit is Rich in 1982 and Rabbit at Rest in 1991. This review covers the latter.
Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is an ex-basketball player who doesn’t want to admit he is aging, even though he now has two grandchildren, Judy and Roy. His son, Nelson, their dad, is using cocaine and embezzling money from the family Toyota dealership. Rabbit’s stepdaughter, Pru, is semi-lascivious and his long suffering wife, Janice, has endured decades of infidelity.
If all that sounds like a downer, it isn’t, because the characters aren’t likeable enough to feel sorry for. They are complicated enough to watch, however, with some amusement. While Mary McCarthy, notably, in The Paris Review, took early reviewers of the work to task for making it seem like Rabbit was a “terrible character,” I have to agree with those reviewers, as much as I agree with McCarthy that the work is “interesting.” I don’t think a character has to be a good role model in order to be entertaining. Harry Angstrom does not have good character in too many traditional senses of the word.
His good qualities are that he tries to be very open-minded and observe the world around him, that his hurtfulness is more from acting on instinct than malice (he feels remorse when he hurts Janice, for example). His failures stem from his appetites, which have led to heart trouble, and women trouble. He is often vulgar (talks with his buddies about potential liaisons with every woman that goes by) and his attempts at heroism (like when Judy feigns drowning) bungling.
If there’s a lesson in the book, it’s that life is short and nothing matters more than family. When Harry’s actions ignite his family’s (justified) withdrawal of affection, he ignores his doctor’s advice as a dysfunctional, or masochistic, form penitence. The ramifications of this course of action are predictable. Spoiler alert! Harry comes to regret how he’s behaved toward the ones who mattered most, the ones he treated the worst, his own wife and son.
I hope to encourage you to read this book, not from the perspective of glorifying bad or emotionally abusive or dysfunctional behavior, but from the perspective of watching this character pay the price of that behavior as a reason to do better yourself. Rabbit’s antics are so over-the-top, it shouldn’t be difficult!