Monday, May 12, 2008

Rabbit is Rich

I'm officially giving up and putting Rabbit is Rich down and do not expect to be picking it up again anytime soon. Please note: I tried really, really hard to finish this. I just couldn't do it. So I'll consider this half a review and the only reason I'm posting is because that half of a book took a painful two weeks of my life.

Was the book bad? Actually, no. John Updike is a brilliant author and has won many deserved awards throughout his career. In a weird sort of way I feel like I should congratulate Mr. Updike for disturbing me to the point where I had to put his book down. Rabbit is Rich won the Pulitzer prize in 1982 and Rabbit at Rest won in 1991. His stories pop and he paints a vivid picture of the culture of that day. I was there again at the gas lines in the 1970's oil crisis and experienced that sudden and highly controversial shift in popularity to Japanese cars which got superior gas mileage. That is the reason Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom, owner of Springer Motors and now middle aged, is rich. He sells Toyota's.

Updike's characterizations are phenomenal. Every one of them including minor characters are multi-faceted real human beings. I felt I knew them all. That is what turned out to be my problem.

I hate Rabbit. I mean I really loathe that guy. Yes, I know characters don't have to be good people and sometimes villainous ones are more fun, but I could not get past the person he was. Every time I picked up this book I would read a few pages and negative emotions would overtake me like no other book has done in a long time.

Rabbit is a hollow person who pretends to be full. He is not happy, nor knows how to be. His smug satisfaction on being rich rings false because he married into the Toyota business and then profits from a bad economic turn.

He doesn't use the money to improve his life however and though he wants a house doesn't buy one. He wants to meet his illegitimate daughter but lacks the courage. He thinks he owns the world but has zero leadership skills. It would never occur to him to reach out and help others or his community.

Rabbit ogles every woman he sees, including his son's pregnant fiancee. The first chapter describes him having sex with his passed out drunk wife. Lovely.

Rabbit hates his son and squashes every dream the boy has. Ironically Nelson wants to work with his father in the car business but Rabbit does not want him there for anything. He interjects petty, mean comments into every conversation with Nelson and says terrible things about him behind his back. Though he himself did not attend college, Rabbit is outraged that Nelson doesn't want to finish and has no interest in him as a separate human being with desires and goals of his own. Rabbit is also quite a nag.

At first I thought the character of Rabbit Angstrom was going to be similar to George Babbitt but no way. Though Babbitt is also slightly corrupt and at times contemptible he is also loyal, optimistic, dare I say joyous, and audaciously goofy. Babbitt stands by his son and is secretly proud when he does something unconventional.

There is much more nastiness in Rabbit but even so, does that make it a bad book? No way! Updike nailed that character but it came too close to home for me. You see, I know a Rabbit, actually two. What can I say, I have my own issues. Maybe some of the situations or Rabbit's attitudes change in the course of the story but I just don't care to stick around and find out.
If this book is supposed to describe the men of that era then thank God it is over. I am happy to report that my own, now middle aged husband is nothing like Rabbit. Nothing.

One thing is for sure. If true art is supposed to challenge a person, then this is the one for me. When I pick up this book up maybe years from now, it will be interesting to see how I feel about it then.
Until then.


Rebecca said...

Thanks for your honest opinions!

Bybee said...

This is my least favorite of the quartet.

Lorcan McNamee said...

Interesting take on Rabbit. It is true he is not a likable character, though I always thought of him more like Homer Simpson, bumbling, well-meaning at times, self-obsessed, an American Everyman.Updike never judges him, which I like.

Byron said...

I'm finishing Rabbit at Rest as I type this. The Rabbit quartet is a masterpiece. How someone can create characters and a world this vivid is just beyond me.

FWIW, Rabbit softens up quite a bit in the final book as he comes to grips with his own mortality. Plus, Cindy Murkett gets fat.