Rabbit At Rest–John Updike

Well. I finally have read the last book in the Rabbit quartet by Updike. You can see the post where I read Rabbit Run, the first book here. You can see the post for Rabbit Redux, the second book, here. You can see the post for Rabbit is Rich, the third book, here.

First off, for those of you here to read more of my Rabbit rantings, this might be a slightly disappointing blog post. While I was still not overly fond of Rabbit, something about him had softened so something about myself softened as well. Once that did, I was able to really, finally, appreciate why people rave about the Rabbit books. Updike is amazing in Rabbit at Rest. I’m not going to go back and try to read the others with this realization, as I don’t care to spend any more time with Rabbit Angstrom. But! I can see better now the reasons.

So, this post will probably be more about Updike and his writing than my hatred for that asshole, Rabbit Angstrom.

Each Rabbit book takes place approximately a decade after the last one. So, this one is taking place in the 1988/1989 realm. Updike does an amazing job of not only capturing Rabbit’s life in here but the life of the nation and the world. AIDS was becoming a big scare at this point in history, and references to it are all around.

“Why is his nose always running? Harry has read somewhere, maybe People on the death of Rock Hudson, that that’s one of the first signs of AIDS.”

“Being so close to, you know, the barn. The reason I ask, I had a touch of heart trouble down in Florida and still can’t get used to it, how close I came. I mean, most of the time it seems unreal, I’m me, and all around me everything is piddling along as normal, and then suddenly at night, when I wake up needing to take a leak, or in the middle of a TV show that’s sillier than hell, it hits me, and wow. The bottom falls right out. I want to crawl back into my parents but they’re dead already.”
Lyle’s puffy lips tremble, or seem to, as he puzzles out this new turn the conversation has taken. “You come to terms with it,” he says. “Everybody dies.”
“But some sooner than others, huh?”
A spasm of indignation animates Lyle. “They’re developing new drugs. All the time. The French. The Chinese. Trichosanthin, TIBO derivatives. Eventually the FDA will have to let them in, even if they are a bunch of Reaganite fascist homophobes who wouldn’t mind seeing us all dead. It’s a question of hanging on. I have hope.”
(a conversation between him and his son’s accountant at the car lot, who is dying of AIDS).

You can almost read this like a historical account of the late 80s. Updike, through Rabbit, gives us a lens on exactly what was happening during this time. Fashion trends, like the shoulder pads for women, tv shows (his granddaughter is a constant channel surfer) including how he hates Roseanne, historical events even if they happened a few years before the time frame of the book (Rabbit muses on the Challenger accident at some point).

I actually found this book compelling and very readable.

However! Do not be fooled into thinking that Rabbit has redeemed himself. He still thinks of Janice, his wife as “that mutt”, he is still hypercritical of his son Nelson. He breaks things off with a woman he’s had an affair with for years, who later dies and can’t even fake to her husband that he loved her. He sleeps with his daughter in law, Nelson’s wife. His casual racism is always right there, in the open.

But, age has softened him and made him too tired to be truly offensive. He’s more concerned now with where his next processed food fix is coming from than whether he wants to have sex with that woman or that one. When he does have a stirring of desire, it’s now like it’s almost observations made from habit with no real desire behind them.

Then, he has a heart attack. So, he gets treated for it and is going along, still stuffing his face with fatty foods and drinking beers.

Then, he finally starts taking care of himself. By this point, he has finally done what he started to do in book 1. He has run away from his family. Not completely, as he has run away to the Florida condo that they winter at and has told them where he has gone. But for him, it was the first time he got that far, in 40 years.

Then, well, there are regrets all around. Except on Rabbit’s part.

Try reading the first one, if you can get past Rabbit’s asshole status in that one, then maybe you can stick it out to this one and end the series with the best book of the quartet in my opinion.

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Rabbit Redux by John Updike

So, I finally decided to spend more time with my most reprehensible literary character ever (the only one I feel more passionate about is Emma on The Following, but that’s t.v. not books). I started reading the Rabbit books, which are listed as a whole in the Top Ten. You can see my entry on the first Rabbit book, Rabbit Runs, here. It will list for you what authors listed the Rabbit quartet as well as what I thought of Rabbit as a character to deserve the first line of this blog.

Ok, now that you all have hopefully read the original post, let me update everything after reading the second in the quartet, Rabbit Redux.

First, the basic plot: Rabbit is 10 years older than in Rabbit Run. He has been working at the print shop his dad does for the last ten years. He and Janice and their son Nelson now live in a house in the suburbs. Then he suspects Janice is cheating on him. The story begins. Updike mixes in a lot of the politics of the time, and events occurring (it’s the thick of the Vietnam War), the hippy movement et cetera. Updike’s writing ability is even better in this novel. In fact, I actually found myself _enjoying_ the story sometimes.

Rabbit is still…Rabbit. But oddly, he’s more likeable now that he’s become a tad more pathetic. He’s in his upper 30s, he knows that some of the dreams he once had are never going to happen now. Yet, his choices still are sometimes reprehensible. And the fact that he often makes choices but then whines at the results how it wasn’t really his fault, hasn’t changed.

Some of the stuff that struck me as almost humorous though is how, hm, how certain politic parties viewing the other side hasn’t changed at all.

Rabbit (or Harry, as he is now called)’s dad talking to him about his mother with Parkinson’s disease:
“Harry, God in his way hasn’t been all bad to your mother and me. Believe it or not there’s some advantages to living so long in this day and age. This Sunday she’s going to be sixty-five and come under Medicare. I’ve been paying in since ’66, it’s like a ton of anxiety rolled off my chest. There’s no medical expense can break us now. They called LBJ every name in the book but believe me he did a lot of good for the little man. Whereever he went wrong, it was in his big heart betrayed him. These pretty boys in the sky right now, Nixon’ll hog the credit but it was the Democrats put ’em there, it’s been the same story ever since I can remember, ever since Wilson–the Republicans don’t do a thing for the little man.” (the moon landing had recently happened, so that’s the pretty boys in the sky reference).

There’s others but apparently the places I had marked showing the Republican’s view of the Democrat/liberal got unmarked somehow.

In case you’re still wondering about how much Rabbit has changed, the answer is not very. Here’s something that a girl he becomes involved with says to him.

“It’s too late,” Jill tells him. “It’s too late for you to try to love me.”
He wants to answer, but there is a puzzling heavy truth in this that carries him under, his hand caressing the inward dip of her waist, a warm bird dipping towards its nest.”

Between him and his sister Mim:
“Why don’t you tend your own garden instead of hopping around nibbling at other people’s?” Mim asks. When she turns, her body becomes a gate, of horizontal stripes, her ass barred in orange.
“I have no garden,” he says.
“Because you didn’t tend it at all. Everybody else has a life they try to fence in with some rules. You just do what you feel like and then when it blows up or runs down you sit there and pout.”

Another thing about Updike that I’ve noticed. Sex between two characters is always real. That’s very different from most authors, even non romance ones. Sex tends to be a little idealized or is a rape, but not just normal awkward sex. Updike, even when writing about great sex tends to leave those awkward parts in there. Our perceptions of our bodies, the weird things we do when we’re propositioning sex, even what we think about when we masturbate and how it’s not quite normal sometimes. That’s part of the appeal of him I think, and what makes people rave about the Rabbit novels.

I’m still not ready to move the Rabbit novels by Updike onto my personal bests list, but Rabbit Redux definitely got me a little more interested and a little less likely to destroy the book out of disgust at the main character. I might even, *gasp*, read the 3rd and 4th a lot sooner than 4 months from now. We’ll see.