Somehow it seemed only right that I would be well into the novel “Rabbit is Rich” when I was on my baseball road trip earlier this month.
“Rabbit is Rich” is the third in a series of four books by the late John Updike about a former high school basketball star schlepping through life in the fictional blue-collar town of Brewer, Pennsylvania, somewhere outside Philadelphia..
I was in Pennsylvania, albeit in Pittsburgh in the western part of the state, when I powered through most of the book (a hefty 553 pages) and then finished it at 30,000 feet on the way back home. Somehow, being in the Keystone State as I read the novel made the experience even richer. (Pun intended.)
For those unfamiliar with the series, Updike wrote four novels tracing the life of his main character, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, from 1960 to 1990 as he goes from young husband and father to middle-age dad to retired grandfather. It was an ambitious undertaking, requiring vision, continuity and closure built around an Everyman character whose dreams, doubts and disappointments are laid bare over the course of four decades.
Fittingly, Updike won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1982 for “Rabbit is Rich” and again in 1991 for “Rabbit at Rest.”
I’d read the first book “Rabbit, Run” but skipped over “Rabbit Redux.” (Gonna have to go back and read that one before finishing up with “Rabbit at Rest.”)
“Rabbit is Rich” picks up the story about Rabbit Angstrom in 1979, a time of oil embargoes and long gas lines; the Iranian hostage crisis; and double-digit inflation. As he moves into middle age, Rabbit has reason to feel content. He and his wife Janice have inherited the local Toyota dealership from his late father-in-law, just as improved gas mileage becomes more important to car buyers.
They belong to a country club, where Harry plays golf, Janice plays tennis and they hang out with three other couples over drinks. Harry, a former Linotype operator, enjoys the prestige that comes with being a businessman and country club member.
Yet life is far from ideal. He and Janice still live in the home she grew up in, with his mother-in-law occupying a bedroom next to theirs. Their son Nelson is a college dropout who comes home with a female friend who, both insist, is not his girlfriend. Later, Nelson’s real girlfriend arrives in town — pregnant — and the young couple move in with the Angstroms.
Nelson wants a job at the dealership but Rabbit resists bringing him on, causing friction with his wife and mother-in-law.
Rabbit’s glory days as a basketball player are well behind him but he remains very much a creature of his hometown, driving the familiar route between work and home, maintaining friendships with high school classmates, and recalling his sexual escapades.
Sex, in fact, is constantly on Rabbit’s mind. He seemingly cannot meet a woman without sizing her up and fantasizing, no matter if it’s his friend’s young wife, his future daughter-in-law, a young saleswoman who waits on him at a coin shop or even a teenage customer at the car lot he believes is his daughter from a long-ago fling.
He is a sexist pig, no doubt. He’s also a racist. There’s not a kind thought toward the black and Puerto Rican residents who’ve moved into his hometown. An endearing guy, he is not.
But that’s the genius of Updike’s work. In Rabbit Angstrom, he has created a character whose beliefs and attitudes reflect a specific era in late 20th century America and whose flaws and insecurities render him utterly believable. As an American male moving through the aging process, I can readily understand Rabbit — and at times sympathize with him — even if he’s someone I wouldn’t hang with.
I close with an excerpt illustrative of Updike’s fine writing. In this scene, Rabbit’s thoughts turn to his son’s girlfriend, Pru, who had just arrived that day in Brewer:
“(S)he’d come a long way today and had met a lot of new faces, what a hard thing for her this evening must have been. While Ma and Janice had scraped together supper, another miracle of sorts, the girl had sat there in the bamboo basket chair brought in from the porch and they all eased around her like cars easing past an accident on the highway.
“Harry could hardly take his eyes from this grown woman sitting there so demure and alien and perceptibly misshapen. She breathed that air he’d forgotten, of high-school loveliness, come uninvited to bloom in the shadow of railroad overpasses, alongside telephone poles, within earshot of highways with battered aluminum center strips, out of mothers gone to lard and fathers ground down by gray days of work and more work, in an America littered with bottlecaps and pull-tabs and pieces of broken muffler.
“Rabbit remembered such beauty, seeing it caught here in Pru, in her long downy arms and skinny bangled wrists and the shining casual fall of her hair, caught as a stick snags the flow of a stream with a dimpled swirl.”
Photograph: Robert Spencer for The New York Times