I’ve been peeved, and I’ve said so, about the high percentage of John Updike memorial articles citing his Rabbit novels (1960’s Rabbit Run, 1971’s Rabbit Redux, 1981’s Rabbit is Rich, 1990’s Rabbit at Rest) as his masterpiece.
I would never deny other readers the right to crow about their favorites, and I do think these books have some value. But I object to the idea that they are his masterpiece because I’m worried people who’ve never read Updike will pick up Rabbit Run and give up on him forever after reading twenty pages of that chewy, stale narrative. In fact, I believe Updike adopted a deliberately dull voice when writing as Rabbit Angstrom. Updike’s gracefully high-minded intellect was his single greatest gift as a writer, but he was deliberately subverting his intellect in these books, and that’s too great a loss.
Updike was famous for his “impersonation” novels — the Bech books, Brazil, Terrorist — and I insist (though I seem to be alone in this opinion) that the Rabbit books were among his impersonation novels. Rabbit Angstrom is a small town basketball former-hotshot, people-smart but not book-smart, with no aspirations that can’t be satisfied in a kitchen or a bedroom. His political views and opinions are earthy, humorous in the same way that Archie Bunker’s were, but ultimately there is always the sense that Updike is studying this Suburban Man, this Joe the Plumber, as a social prototype.
The greatest problem, though, is the absence of Updike’s soaring voice. Updike’s prose will follow his character’s thought patterns in any book, of course, and Rabbit’s thoughts are stubby, ungrammatical, tepid. Updike’s voice flies in other books — when Piet Hanema watches a woman walk by a church, when Richard Maple stares up at a falling Boston skyscraper. But Rabbit is a ground-sniffer. So is John Updike in these four books, and the experiment produces interesting results, but no masterpiece.
If you want to discover John Updike and haven’t yet, I suggest you read Couples first, and then Too Far To Go, followed by any of those bricks of collected criticism, Odd Jobs or Hugging the Shore or any other, it doesn’t matter which, that you can pick up in a used bookstore cheap. For some early Updike, read Of The Farm and a few short stories; for later Updike, try Gertrude and Claudius, and at some point take a break with Nicholson Baker’s U and I. At this point, you’re ready for Rabbit. But the novels should never be the entry point for Updike’s career.
With that said: I got a lot of feedback the last time I wrote something like this, and more than one Updike fan said I shouldn’t judge the Rabbit foursome on the basis of the first two, but must read the third volume, Rabbit is Rich. I’ve now read it and completely agree that this is the best one so far, much better than Rabbit Run or the confused Rabbit Redux. I now understand some of the enthusiasm many feel for the Rabbit series, and I am also starting to see how enjoyable it is to follow a single set of characters — a family, an ever-shifting gang of friends, a very funny son who keeps crashing cars into things — over the course of several decades. This is probably the best thing about the Rabbit books. (However, Too Far To Go does the same thing, though not to the same length.)
As for Rabbit is Rich itself, the voice here has mellowed as the character has matured. Middle-age suits Rabbit well, as it suited Updike well. I loved the scenes with the gold and the silver, and I was amused near the end to discover that the book’s final sequence is a return to Updike’s most classic literary motif — the “swapping party” — the same motif that animated Couples, Marry Me and so many other Updike books, that Rick Moody parodied brilliantly in The Ice Storm, that eventually led to a mediocre TV series called “Swingtown”. That screwy Rabbit, after all these years …
I guess I’ll even read Rabbit At Rest … what the hell, I’ve come this far. These are good books. They’re just not John Updike’s masterpiece.