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John Updike: Rabbit novels

Let’s be honest here. This novel succeeded because – shock, horror! – it had sleazy sex in it. Americans love sleazy sex (though they will furiously deny it) and this was so naughty that Knopf had to cut some of the dirty bits out when it was first published but, of course, that made Americans even more eager for it and they lapped it up (pun intended). The four books follow the story of Harry Angstrom, known as Rabbit. Rabbit was a high school basketball star and, like other school sports stars, life afterwards seems a bit mundane. When we first meet him he is in a dull job and a dull marriage, perfect Peyton Place material. He leaves his pregnant wife for a prostitute with a heart of gold (Updike is good with the literary clichés) but returns when his wife goes into labour but leaves again. His wife, who is an alcoholic, accidentally drowns the baby and poor Harry is left torn between the drunken wife and the prostitute with a heart of gold. End of first book, riddled with clichés.

If you thought that was bad, the next book really does lay it on. A black revolutionary and a young hippie woman keep Rabbit, now ten years older, occupied. The Vietnam War and the associated culture are hovering in the background but Updike gives us nothing new whatsoever on these topics. Rabbit seems to want to fall asleep and so do we. In Rabbit Is Rich, Rabbit is, no surprise, rich (and ten more years older). He is back with Janice and has inherited his father-in-law’s Toyota dealership. He (and Janice) are into middle class complacency with a bit of sex, problems with the kid and an undefined feeling that things aren’t quite right. You’ve read it before and done much better. The last one, another ten years on, of course has Harry and Janice retired in Florida where, guess what? Harry is bored, overweight and worried about death. And, of course, he even has a heart attack. Do you care? Nor do I.

Publishing history

Rabbit, Run
First published 1960 by Knopf
Rabbit Redux
First published 1971 by Knopf
Rabbit Is Rich
First published 1981 by Knopf
Rabbit At Rest
First published 1990 by Knopf