Rabbit at Rest is the last of 4 novels about the life and times of Harry Angstrom, an American everyman. They span his adult life. I don’t know if Updike decided at the outset to make this a tetralogy but from reading them all, I think not. The last novel, which I have just finished, is as good as the others but is definitely following a well-worn groove. The protagonist, whose stream of consciousness we frequently follow in all of the novels, is a very real character in that he is fundamentally very flawed, with occasional flashes of moral rectitude. Like most people, probably. He is racist, sexist, selfish, unreasonable – but if our private thoughts were made public, as his are through Updike, all of us might look that way.
There are occasional slightly too visible efforts to connect the story to real events, to give a timeline. References to Watergate, Reagan or whatever. But Harry – nicknamed ‘Rabbit’ as a gifted young basketball player – displays all the prejudices of his origins in rustbelt America. He muses poetically at times and thinks often about God. He is not a shallow character.
Other characters are memorable and, on the whole, pretty convincing. But the best thing about this novel is the way it displays the textures of a life lived. TV, ageing, fast food – these are all nicely and subtly analysed in a way that gives the appearance of reality without descending into preachiness.
There is also a subtext about sin and redemption – the sins of the fathers are seen visited on the children in a cycle that looks likely, pretty much, to go on and on.
All in all, these 4 novels are a pretty amazing piece of writing. Maintaining the same tone and personality over such a long period is truly remarkable. One nagging concern is that they might well be of greater appeal to men than women. The whole perspective is male. There is quite a lot of sex, which Rabbit does not analyse all that much, treating it in a slightly animalistic way – as some men do?
‘Memories of the Ford Administration’ is tagged on here as it is one of the very few books – ‘Ulysses’ is the only other one I can think of – that I have tried twice to read and given up on both occasions. It is not a good book, in my view. It has some excellent scenes about the priapic academic who sits at the centre of the story and how he copes with his mid-life crises. But it goes off into long, long digressions by quoting the piece of historical research he is engaged in. I am sure it is a better book than I describe here; but it is long-winded and, frankly, I was not prepared to wait and see what the point of it all was. So not up to Rabbit standards.
But the Rabbit books are excellent.