Rabbit Redux By John Updike
Oh my goodness… book two of Updike’s Rabbit series is all about sex and drugs… somber, dark, and ugly. And though Updike tries hard to provide a snapshot of the hippie era from the perspective of the working class urban neighborhood, the plot turns out to be a bit preposterous.
It is now 1970. Ten years have passed since the conclusion of Rabbit Run and if you expected Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom to have learned any valuable lessons from his earlier life, you are sorely mistaken. Gone are the influences of the family elders and the local church minister. Closing in on 40 years old, Janice and Harry Angstrom are in a panic and struggling with their broken marriage. Janice discovers good sex and moves out to live with her Greek lover. Harry- now abandoned along with 13 year old Nelson- invites an 18 year old spoiled hippie runaway named Jill to move in. She gets food and a warm bed. He gets sex and housekeeping services. So far the plot is feasible, but from this point on it gets a bit farfetched.
Next, Harry gives refuge to a crazy, radical black drug dealer who is running from the law. Why is this improbable? Because Updike made a point of explicitly demonstrating that Rabbit has a deeply ingrained racist attitude. He is a red-neck, bigoted white man from an all white upbringing in a white racist neighborhood. He can barely stand to ride on a bus with blacks. He is even appalled by the dark hairiness of Janice’s Greek boyfriend. Yet, Skeeter- the penniless, homeless, rude, arrogant, drug pushing crazy black guy with a volatile temper who preaches he is the next messiah- moves in with Harry, Jill and Nelson. Needless to say, things quickly get out of control.
Amidst analytical debates about the value of space exploration, the controversy of the Vietnam War, civil rights, and generalities about the hippie era, John Updike once again demonstrates his wry humor. Rabbit seems to be obsessed with sex. In this new era of “free” sex, Rabbit wants in on it, but the women he has a chance at are physically unattractive or downright repulsive. Most of the time, after great anticipation, he can’t get aroused and if he does, the outcome is dull and hideous.
Updike is renowned for his sex scenes- winning the Literary Review’s Lifetime Achievement Award for “bad sex in fiction”… and not without reason. He makes sex seem dirty, ugly, degrading- meaningless except for the primal desire of instant gratification. I like to think that most readers prefer lovemaking scenes to be beautiful, romantic, physically and emotionally fulfilling for the participants.
And once again the reader is faced with Updike’s flowery prose juxtaposed with a crude and nasty plot. Harry’s insipid behavior once again (hence the ‘redux’) leads to depravity and tragedy.
Rated 3 Stars
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