Friday, April 10, 2009

The Next Chapter

Our March Book Club discussion of John Updike's “Rabbit, Run” produced strong opinions. Although we all admired Updike's prose, some were put off by Rabbit's immaturity and self-absorption. But I found him a fascinating character and I wanted to follow him. So I turned to the next chapter in his life – Rabbit Redux. Written in 1971 and set in 1969, this book returns to Brewer, Pennsylvania and rejoins Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom's life 10 years after we left him running – towards something, away from something, we couldn't tell.

What I found in this book was a man who seemed diminished by the past ten years. He works with his father in a dead end job as a linotyper in a small printing plant. He has returned to his wife Janice and they now live in the suburban development in an apple-green aluminum clapboard house with their thirteen-year-old son Nelson. He has gained weight and lost muscle tone and he doesn't even run anymore. This time it is Janice who runs - she leaves Rabbit for Charlie Stavros, the smoothly handsome Greek car salesman at her father's lot, (not a spoiler – it happens early in the book). Rabbit, who evaded responsibility whenever possible in “Rabbit, Run”, becomes responsible for Nelson.

The events of 1969 seep into Rabbit's world. He supports the Viet Nam war, perhaps in part because he feels guilty at not having served in Korea. Oh yes, guilt still plays a big role in his life. And it is a mix of guilt, curiosity, and loneliness (plus sex, of course) that draws him into an unusual relationship with two characters who seem emblematic of the era. One is Skeeter, a black revolutionary wannabe on the lam, the other is Jill, a rich young runaway drug addict . That these two share a household with Rabbit and his teenage son produces some scenes of frightening intensity.

This book at times seems so rooted in its era that it feels dated. But for me the beauty and power of Updike's prose more than compensated for that. Once again I was fascinated by Rabbit, a hapless sex-driven guilt-ridden schmo stumbling through his life. Am I interested enough to follow him through yet another book? I am.

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