I’m continually surprised that I like the Rabbit books. I don’t enjoy them, nor should I, but I love the prose and the genius of how John Updike has captured the malaise of white middle-aged America at his point in time. Self-loathing, self-centered, bored, dissatisfied, bitter, cynical, and sad, each book captures Harry Angstrom as any white American man could find himself at Harry’s age, a man who may have once had a decent grasp on life in high school but ever since has been the architect of his own spiritual self-destruction. Things occasionally go colossally wrong in Harry’s life in these novels, such as the death of Jill, his baby daughter, and Skeeter, but ultimately, especially in this novel, the tragedy is the man himself. He epitomizes not only what it is to be stuck in a dissatisfied rut, but a man whose entire world IS the rut. The title, as usual, is ironic. Rabbit is fairly well to do, with enough liquid cash to afford an expensive island vacation in the book’s third act and even pick up the tab for his friends. He seems to like his wife again. She even turns him on from time to time. His ire and antipathy for her have dimmed, and even when it emerges during the occasional spat, she brushes it off or stands her ground, so the bitterness doesn’t have the same bite. But Rabbit just can’t be happy. He only has his business because his father-in-law gave it to him. Nelson has a lucrative, innovative idea for auto sales but because they don’t fit the mold, Rabbit dismisses him out of hand, probably denying the kid a shot at doing something he may really love with his life, the sins of the father somehow visited upon the son, who ends up treating his wife as Harry had once treated Janice. Harry vacillates between loving and hating himself and those closest to him. He needs them, he can’t stand to live with them, and somehow it’s all to be blamed on the economy, on Jimmy Carter, etc. I deeply admire what Updike can capture with these books. Harry is almost a generation older than my parents, but I can still see how that same disillusionment can manifest in their baby-boom generation as well as the middle-aged generations to follow, including mine. This is a cautionary tale. However, what I love about Updike’s prose is you never get that judgment from him. He doesn’t tell. He shows, through the third-person limited omniscient p.o.v. of Harry’s perspective (and occasionally Nelson’s). Harry’s disposition is perpetually sour but occasionally and sadly sweet and loving. The male reader is hard pressed to render judgment against him because even as we do, we know that there is much of ourselves to see in him.
As with the other Rabbit novels, Rabbit is Rich is very sexually graphic for extended passages, either in actual sex scenes or Harry’s wandering, lustful mind. Were the prose of any less quality, I would find this very off-putting, and in fact it is off-putting, such as when Harry is with Thelma on their sweetly sad night together and they end up doing some shocking activities . But because of the way it’s presented, and because of what we have invested in these characters, we can’t just lay it aside. Legitimate feelings, dreams, and emotions are being shared here, so we have to take the mess along with it. Life, love, and the effort to keep it all somehow new are all very messy and can be easily made messier by those who customarily go wayward as Harry does. These books are deeply impactful and cause me to guard my thoughts and consider what it means to live with gratitude.