Wednesday, December 12, 2007

John Updike, part 1

by Steven Williams

John Updike circa 2006 black and white photographJohn Updike is an American writer who was born in 1932 in Pennsylvania. Updike is renowned as a modern writer in English and particularly celebrated for the craftsmanship of his work. He is also relatively prolific having published, as of 2007, twenty-two novels, twelve short story collections, eight collections of his poetry, eleven collections of nonfiction prose, and six children's books. Contributing to this reputation for productivity, hundreds of his stories, reviews, and poems have appeared in The New Yorker magazine since his professional writing career began in the 1950s. His fiction has also been the basis for the feature length films Rabbit, Run (1970), Too Far to Go (1979), The Roommate (1985), Witches of Eastwick (1987) as well as the short films The Music School (1974), Pigeon Feathers (1987), and A & P (1996). He has been relatively consistent in the ways he uses his fiction to explore the human condition, in particular as it is lived out in mainstream America. He is also recognized as one of the first writers to use the present tense in American fiction, beginning with 'Rabbit, Run' in 1960, and generally has a reputation for preferring to write in a realistic and naturalistic style. He also has always been a bit self-conscious about his personal ailments and he has incorporated these into many of his better-known novels. Within Updike's output of novels, there are the Rabbit books (four novels and one novella).

John Updike color photographUpdike is best known for his 'Rabbit' novel series: Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit is Rich; Rabbit at Rest, and Rabbit Remembered. Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest each won the author a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The main character of these novels is an American small town, protestant, middle-class man, Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom, living in the Reading area of Pennsylvania. He was a high school basketball star nicknamed 'Rabbit' and Updike follows this man as he uneasily settles into an angst-filled mediocrity, living out an American middle-class life in which he seems he unable to make any serious commitment. Like all of his fiction, the themes of Updike's Rabbit novels focus on sex, faith, and death, and how these forces or events impinge on each of his character's lives as well as how they react to them. Repeatedly, Updike uses the events shadowing Rabbit's decline from a high as a star athlete, and the decisions he makes in the process, in order to make pithy critiques of contemporary American life. Using his own style of comic irony, Updike has been able to gently but cuttingly examine the lives of average Americans from the 1960s through the 1990s.

Rabbit, Run by John Updike first edition front coverRabbit, Run (1960)
In this novel, Updike introduces Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom, the recurring character of the author's best known group of novels usually referred to as his 'Rabbit' novels. In this book, Rabbit is a twenty-six year old former high school basketball star and the story follows three months in his life and that of his immediate family. Rabbit has a job as a retail salesman and is married to his former high school girlfriend. The couple has a two-year old son, she is pregnant again, and they live in a suburb in Pennsylvania. Rabbit is caught up in a wave of dissatisfaction about his middle-class family life and decides on the spur of the moment to take off. He does not get very far before returning home where he goes to visit his old basketball coach. Carrie Snodgress as Janice Angstrom and Don Keefer as Janice's father black and white still photograph from the film adaptation of Rabbit, Run (1970)There he is introduced to a woman with whom he begins an affair. When Rabbit takes up with this other woman, his wife returns to live with her parents. He finds out that his wife has gone into labor and rushes to the hospital where she gives birth to a baby girl. Rabbit returns to live with his wife and takes a new job working at his father-in-law's auto dealership. But he has a fight with his wife and takes off out of town again. In despair, his wife gets drunk and accidentally drowns their baby girl. Rabbit returns for the funeral but refuses to take any responsibility for the death. And when the woman who he has been having the affair with comes with him, tells him she is pregnant, and gives an ultimatum of either filing for divorce or else she will abort the baby, Rabbit takes off out of town again.

Rabbit Redux by John Updike paperback edition front cover
Rabbit Redux (1971)
In Updike's second Rabbit novel, it is 1969 and his main protagonist is working in a dead-end job, approaching middle age, and still living in the same suburb in Pennsylvania. In this story, his wife leaves him for another man and he and his twelve-year old son finding their lives suddenly as chaotic as the nation's. Updike returns to familiar themes of sex, guilt, and death and then adds racism to the mix. An African American, cynical, drug-dealing Vietnam Vet and a teenage girl running away from her wealthy family move into the house and the scandalous household these four set up, mirrors the Summer of Love. Brutal reality returns when a house fire kills the teenage girl and, in the end, Rabbit and his wife are reconciled.

Rabbit is Rich by John Updike front cover

Rabbit is Rich (1981)
Updike's third Rabbit novel finds his main character living a paunchy middle-age life in the same Pennsylvania suburban town. He and his wife inherited a sizeable estate after her father's estate and they are now living a very comfortable life. Despite this turn of events, problems continue to dog their lives. Rabbit's wife has become an alcoholic, his son is troubled, Rabbit's libido continues to lead him around, and his situations and people from his past all contribute to make life less than it could be. Rabbit is dangerously dissatisfied with his life and this leads disastrously to a crush on a friend's young wife.

Rabbit at Rest by John Updike front cover

Rabbit at Rest (1990)
This Rabbit novel skims over the entirety of Rabbit's adult life, focusing on the years 1988 to 1990. Rabbit and his wife have retired to Florida where depression and boredom lead to Rabbit becoming dangerously overweight. Family complications, particularly the problems of Rabbit's drug addicted son, lead him to flee the family and go into hiding from them for a while. During this hiatus from the family, Rabbit dies from a massive coronary shortly after winning a one-on-one basketball game with a local youth.

Licks of Love by Johnn Updike front cover

Rabbit Remembered (2000)
This Rabbit book is a novella that was published in the short story collection Licks of Love. The story is set in late 1999 and focuses on Rabbit's illegitimate daughter and her intrusion into the life of his now middle-aged son, recently separated from his wife. All the survivors of Rabbit's life make appearances, including his fourteen-year old, gifted grandson. True to his other Rabbit novels, Updike creates an ambiguous ending with some hint that Rabbit's son and his wife will get back together.

high school basketball game color photograph

Newer Article: Philip K. Dick, the film adaptations of a master of speculative fiction


Older Article: David Clement-Davies, talking animals and pagan folklore

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John Updike part 1, The Rabbit Books by Steven Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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