24 December 2011

The Rabbit books

Reading one of Updike's Rabbit books.  So that it will be listed once in this blog, here is the publishing chronology:

Rabbit, Run (1960)
Rabbit Redux (1971)
Rabbit is Rich (1981)
Rabbit at Rest (1990)
And a short story, portraying the lives of some of the series' characters after Harry Angstrom's death,  Rabbit Remembered (2001)

I've often said (in this blog and elsewhere) that the Rabbit series does not contain Updike's best work. The Updike I admire writes novels of ideas, where vivid characters debate theology or other weighty matters in terms often academically informed but never dry.

Roger's Version fits that description, as does Memories of the Ford Administration, the Bech series, and In the Beauty of the Lilies.

The Rabbit series, though, is the story of an uninteresting ex-jock growing up and growing old, having what we are to take as paradigmatic crises -- paradigmatic for working-class white American men of the second half of the 20th century. Not my cup of tea, though not without some of the characteristic Updike flair.

And today is a lazy Christmas eve day, so I won't try to think of something clever to write about instead. .

SPOILER ALERT: I'm not shy about giving away plot twists in what follows.

Angstrom got the nickname "Rabbit," a reference to his small nose, and to his leaping agility,  during his basketball-star days in high school, in the late 1940s. When we first meet him in Rabbit Run, those days are already a memory -- it is the mid 1950s and Rabbit is selling kitchen gadgets. He is married, has a two year old son, and his wife (Janice) is heavily pregnant with their second. In the course of that novel, the baby is born, and later dies, drowned in the bathtub in a way that implicates both Harry and Janice, though they escape from legal consequences.

Rabbit Redux  begins in 1969: indeed, it begins on the day that Apollo 11 takes off for the moon.  The town where these novels are set, Brewer, PA., is an old-line industrial sort of place, and one of its businesses made one of the electronic components crucial to the success of Neil Armstrong et al. The local paper runs a story beginning:

"When Brewerites this Sunday gaze up at the moon, it may look a little bit different to them.
"Because there's going to be a little bit of Brewer on it."

Angstrom is the one to set those words in type, because he is employed at a print shop, while Janice works at an auto dealership her father owns.

Janice and Harry go their separate ways in the course of this novel. Janice saves her lover while he is suffering a heart attack and Harry lives for a time with a young woman named Jill, who is closer in age to his and Janice's son (Nelson) than to Harry. The plot eventually kills off Jill in a house fire -- Harry and Janice reconcile.

By the time we reach Rabbit is Rich, the year is 1979. Janice's father is deceased, and the Angstroms have inherited the above mentioned dealership (selling Toyotas). As the title of the novel indicates, that vastly improves their material circumstances, though they still live in Brewer,which by this point represents the decline of US industrial might -- no more bits of Brewer are heading to the moon, because America has closed down the Apollo program.

In Rabbit at Rest, Harry is in retirement in Florida the late 1980s, and the news is full of the destruction of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Nelson Angstrom now runs the Toyota dealership -- and is running it either incompetently or crookedly. During a sunfishing expedition, Rabbit rescues his visiting granddaughter, Rebecca, (Nelson's girl) from drowning. This gives him a sense of redemption from his guilt over the death of his daughter all those decades before, yet the exertion weakens his heart contributing to his own demise.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.