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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Summer Read: Rabbit is Rich

Rabbit is Rich is the third book in John Updike's series about Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. There's plenty of angst to go around in this Pulitzer-prize winning novel set in 1979.

Rabbit, now in his mid-40s, oversees the car dealership formerly owned by his now-deceased father-in-law, Fred Springer. Gas prices are soaring in the wake of the Iranian revolution, the embassy hostage crisis, and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. His son Nelson has dropped out of college (Kent State!) and impregnated a secretary at the university. Both are now living with Rabbit, his wife Janice, and her mother. To top it off, Harry is convinced that his dalliance with Ruth Leonard 20 years ago produced a daughter, who visits the car lot early in the book. At the country club, Rabbit develops a strong lust for Cindy Murkett, the young trophy wife of his golfing buddy Webb.

This a terrific novel, though I recommend reading the prior two books first.

I suppose this work was particularly compelling for me because of the temporal setting and Rabbit's age. Updike includes lots of references to real events from 1979, which included the end of my senior year in high school and the start of my freshman year in college. I remember most of the events quite well and like Rabbit often thought of the implications. We both spent a lot of time thinking about energy policy, for example, though Rabbit does not dwell much on Three Mile Island. He is much more concerned about gasoline prices. Rabbit knows he is incredibly fortunate to be peddling Toyota products -- and not, say, Chrysler autos.

I'm a few years older now than Rabbit is in this novel, but I too will have a child in college in Ohio this fall. Rabbit has been married 22 years; my spouse and I just celebrated our 20th anniversary. He's in a management position at the car lot -- he's rich enough to speculate in gold and silver -- and I'll be Department chair beginning in January, after my fall sabbatical. The other important elements in Rabbit's life are not especially well paralleled in my own, but many people in their late 40s begin to think about some of the big issues Harry ponders in this novel. He thinks periodically about how his past has shaped his present world, worries somewhat about his future, and considers the meaning of various relationships in his life. Are he and the people around him stuck in a rut? Can they change? Does he want anything to change?

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