Rabbit novels come out at the turn of each decade, like a series of reports on the state of America. Rabbit is rich, the third and latest, takes place in Brewster, Pennsylvania, from June 1979 into 1980. Rabbit – as Harry Angstrom is still known to himself – runs a Toyota agency; his scene is now the country club, the golf course and the Bahamas on a wife-swapping holiday. The novel is effortlessly informing about time and place; about smart money and car dealing, what they say about Chappaquiddick, TV ads, the contents of a bathroom cabinet. This is a corner of America in a mood of complacence ample enough to admit self-criticism, provoked in particular by the oil crisis and the queues at petrol stations. Flags are at half-mast for the hostages in Iran. God, who used to be present to Harry in his childhood, has withdrawn, ‘giving Harry the respect due from one well-off gentleman to another’: but a consolation is that ‘not only is the Pope coming but the Dalai Lama they bounced out of Tibet twenty years ago is going round the USA talking to divinity schools and appearing on TV talk shows.’ Much scope for criticism of America is offered, but not inadvertently, for the criticism is all made or implied in the novel itself. And Updike’s trend-spotting instincts are not just alert to news-items but sustain whole scenes of social comedy, as in the marriage preparations of Nelson, Rabbit’s son and now his greatest trial. All this, even the dirty talk that grates plausibly on the ear, is so good, so alive, that one wishes Updike would stick with realism and forget about Rabbit and the meaning of life.
LRB 4 February 1982 | PDF Download