John Updike’s death on January 28, 2009 resulted in an outpouring of tributes and articles about his very prolific career as a short story and novel writer, as a poet and as an author of numerous pieces of art and literary criticism. The New Yorker, the New York Times and the New York Review of Books featured articles by such eminent literati as Adam Gopnik, Roger Angell, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, Michiko Kakutani and Ian McEwan.
Our book club (made up of four couples) saw this as an opportunity to explore some of Updike’s fiction. Some members had had no previous exposure to Updike; others had read the first Rabbit (Rabbit Run 1961) book some 45 years ago; while others had spent much of the latter part of the 20th century reading every Updike short story, poem and literary criticism that appeared with regularity in The New Yorker.
Ian McEwan and other critics called the Rabbit tetralogy a “masterpiece.” So, how to pick the “right” Rabbit for the book club? We took a quick poll – one member, not a particular Updike fan, wanted to read only one of the Rabbit books that had won the National Book award – that cut our options down to two books: Rabbit is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990). We finally agreed that we wanted to know more about Rabbit before we read about his death in Rabbit at Rest.
Rabbit is Rich takes place in a small Pennsylvania town (very similar to Shillington, Pennsylvania where Updike grew up) during the American boom years of the1970s with the oil crisis, inflation and rising deficits. Our “hero” Harry Angstrom was a high school basketball star turned car salesman, householder, errant husband and completely self absorbed. He is representative of his generation with a very limited view of the world and bemoans the societal changes around him.
All members of the book groups found Rabbit to be an unlikable fellow with an unlikable and dysfunctional family and an odd group of friends whose sexual proclivities and bigotry coincide with his own values. Indeed no one in our group thought the book was very enjoyable to read.
However, we all agreed that the detail of Updike’s writing — the description of his decaying town as he drives up and down main street, the beauty of the surrounding countryside as he searches for an imaginary daughter – was so poetic that we marveled at the beauty of the words and, yes, we were all inspired to continue reading. Here’s a sample:
“There always comes in September a parched brightness to the air that hits Rabbit two ways, smelling of apples and blackboard dust and marking the return to school and work in earnest, but then again reminding him he’s suffered another promotion, taken another step up the stairs that has darkness at the head.”
Rabbit may not have been our cup of tea, but Updike wrote an incredible number of books on a variety of subjects – 23 novels, 13 short story collections, 10 poetry collections and 10 collections of essays and criticism. One hundred and forty six short stories appeared in The New Yorker alone. Some of us continue to explore Updike’s fiction because as Michiko Kakutani wrote in The New York Times, “endowed with an art student’s pictorial imagination, a journalist’s sociological eye and a poet’s gift for metaphor, John Updike was arguably this country’s one true all-around man of letters.”
His last poems, written in November and December of 2008, were published in the March 16, 2009 issue of The New Yorker. If you read them, you will be moved.