Rabbit is Rich by John Updike: Book Review
Nobody describes humanity quite like John Updike. Like a scab picked clean--satisfying, and flinchingly thorough.
Consider the following passage:
"A little touch of the hooker about her looks. The way her soft body wants to spill from these small clothes, the faded denim shorts and purpleRabbit Angstrom, the protagonist of the novel, is describing a woman he fetishistic-ally believes might be his daughter. Greedily incestuous, the passage sets the tone for all of Rabbit's female encounters--lecherous and prurient. Not surprisingly, the often-described sex in the novel is insistent, claustrophobic and pornographic. There's a reoccurring, and strange obsession with female toes. What to make of all this?
Paisleyhalter. The shining faintly freckled flesh of her shoulders and top arms and the busy wanton abundance of her browny-red many-colored hair, carelessly bundled...She has blue eyes in deep sockets and the silence of a girl from the country used to letting men talk while she holds a sweet-and-sour secret in her mouth, sucking it. An incongruous disco touch in her shoes, with their high cork heels and ankle straps. Pink toes, painted nails..He feels she wants to hide from him, but is too big and white, too suddenly womanly, too nearly naked. Her shoes accent the length of her legs; she is taller than average, and not quite fat, though tending towards chunky, especially around the chest. Her upper lip closes over the lower with a puffy bruised look. She is bruisable..."
On the one hand, Updike is a glorious writer. He describes every physicality to such a minute detail that you are left with searing images branded to your brain...which is unfortunately gross. How do you get past the stunningly vivid descriptions of oral sex, sexual urination, and every time Rabbit comes across a beautiful woman the reader’s gag reflex is triggered. Okay, maybe I am exaggerating a little bit...but it's still *eeww*
Set in the late 1970s, the book tells the story of Rabbit Angstrom, a successful car salesman, who is…well…rich. We meet his needy wife, and a sullen, vapid son, his country club friends, and the economic swirl of his father-in-law's car lot that he has inherited. The characters in Rabbit is Rich resemble John Updike’s Couples in more ways than one—the careless, seemingly banal marital affairs that they have, the greedy selfishness, and half-loathing vision of the upper, white class American social milieu. But unlike Couples, Rabbit is Rich is not pointless and bored with itself. Instead Updike fleshes out key relationships with finesse and style.
There is the ambiguity, shot with loathing between Rabbit and his son which includes Rabbit’s slimy, yet oddly endearing attempts at redemption. When Rabbit clumsily offers his son an “out” from an ill-advised marriage to a pregnant girlfriend, it is clear that Rabbit's predilection to run from his problems are thoughtlessly being passed on to his son.
There’s a whole “apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” message that Updike manages to add interesting dimensions to and eek out beyond the cliché. There is also the strange apathy that he has for his dead daughter coupled with an unhealthy fascination with another daughter that he might or might not have.
I didn't realize Rabbit is Rich was the third installment in a series. So I spent much of the book thinking Updike was being uncharacteristically coy with Rabbit's lurid past. We get hints and pieces of his past, which the reader can comfortably piece together without deterring from present story. Once you get past long passages on Rabbit's rambling thoughts, and a needlessly informative sections on cars, this is a pretty good book to bury yourself into for a couple of hours.