Book Review - Rabbit Redux (1971)

I read this sequel almost immediately after reading its predecessor, mainly because the novels came bundled together. I do have to admit if I had read the first book when it was originally published and then had to wait 10 years for the sequel, I would have been frustrated. It's not because I was on the edge of my seat, but because the first book ends on a note that feels like, "Now, what?"

Rabbit, Run ends with a shocking death and a shocking birth, both connected to the main character and that's it. We're left with so many loose threads that it almost doesn't feel complete. Rabbit Redux picks up ten years later. Harry Angstrom, nicknamed Rabbit, is 36. He works at a printing plant with his elderly father, Earl Angstrom. He lives in the fictional town of Brewer, Pennsylvania, an increasingly desolate place. He rarely sees his mother, Mary Angstrom, who has Parkinson's Disease but his mother can't stop talking about Janice, Rabbit's wife whom he abandoned in the previous book.

Rabbit Redux is divided into four chapters, unlike the first book, which had no clear distinctions. Each chapter is named after a person with the exception that the first chapter is titled "Pop/Mom/Moon." The Pop and Mom are obvious. They're not just references to Rabbit's parents but it could also be a reflection of Rabbit and Janice as parents.

The Moon part is a bit more subtle or at least sub-textual. It's actually a subtext I didn't understand at first. On page 6, author John Updike writes that the television inside the bar was showing a rocket blasting off. On page 10, Updike notes Earl is nervously happy knowing, "Armstrong is above him." Even though this note should have opened my eyes, it didn't hit me until page 13, when Rabbit's son, Nelson, says, "They've left earth's orbit! They're forty-three thousand miles away."

Updike sprinkles all these cultural clues to let the reader know exactly what day it is in 1969. He underlines the day when he has Earl say on page 80, "They're down! Eagle has landed!" While we get fun references like TV dinners and skits with Carol Burnett and Gomer Pyle doing The Lone Ranger, we also get other cultural clues that aren't so fun. We also get explicit racism.

It all starts on page 10. Updike writes, "The bus has too many Negroes." On page 23, he has Rabbit mumble, "Catch a nigger by the toe." On page 30, Rabbit yells that he hates taking the bus because "it stinks of Negroes." On page 87, Updike lays down that Rabbit "is not quite easy, talking to a black." In chapter 2, Rabbit goes across the bridge to Jimbo's Friendly Lounge where all the black people are. He meets up with Buchanan, a colleague from work. Updike then has Rabbit make an offensive observation on page 100. Rabbit is reminded of "that show with chimpanzees synchronized with talk and music."

The racism comes to a boil on page 142 when Earl goes on a tirade and says, "They're the garbage of the world, Harry. American Negroes are the lowest of the low." This almost sets up the events in chapter 3 when a black, Vietnam veteran called Skeeter comes to stay at Rabbit's house. One would assume that the remainder of the book would be Rabbit learning to put away his racism or the racist ideas thrust on him by his father, but that kind of resolution isn't exactly Updike's style. Instead, chapter 3 through to the end is nothing but rants from Skeeter about America that are boring, monologues about slavery that are way too heavy-handed, and scenes of intense and crazy sexuality.

At first, I thought Rabbit, Run had a lot of sex, but that's nothing compared to Rabbit Redux, which ramps up the amount and level of sex considerably. In the beginning of the book, Rabbit and his wife Janice seem not to have much of a sex life. On page 28, Rabbit stares at Janice who's in the bathtub almost as if he's never seen a naked woman before. When she calls herself a cunt, Updike pens, "It excites him, touches him like a breath on his cock." On page 24, Janice gets out the tub, "nestles her bottom against his fly, lifting herself on tiptoe and arching her back to make a delicate double damp spreading contact. His [Rabbit's] mind softens; his prick hardens."

Before the sexual acts become wild, Updike delights in describing male and female genitalia. On page 30, he writes, "She sees his big white body, his spreading slack gut, his uncircumcised member hanging boneless as a rooster comb from its blonde roots." On page 60, after Janice undresses again, Updike writes, "...straddling his thighs, her cunt revealed by the flickering touch of the television to be lopsidedly agape." On page 94, Updike goes into the texture of a woman's pubic hair, "Some of the cunts in the magazine just had wisps at the base of their bellies, hardly an armpit's worth."

Besides the bluntness with which Updike talks about naked bodies and the frequency of which, he continues the idea that he started in the previous novel that women are not just sexually passive creatures, always demure. On page 89, he writes, "Women, fire in their crotch, won't burn out, begin by fighting off pricks, end by going wild hunting for one that still works." In the previous novel, Ruth Leonard was the sexually liberated one who operated with little judgment against her, despite it being the 1950s and despite her being Rabbit's age. This time around, Jill Pendleton, a 18-year-old runaway from Connecticut, is the sexually liberated one. Yet, she operates under a cloud of a bit more judgment.

The judgment isn't really against her, as it is against Skeeter. Skeeter has sex with Jill. Interracial relations, especially of a black man with a younger white girl, is the kind of thing that a few years earlier, if a black man even thought, could get him killed Emmett Till-style. Rabbit's neighbors urge him to get rid of Skeeter. Meanwhile, Rabbit's wife, Janice, who by then had moved out, urges him to get rid of Jill because she doesn't want her son around the self-described slut.

On page 122, Jill strips naked in Rabbit's living room and Updike spends half-a-page detailing her body. Prior to Skeeter's arrival, she and Rabbit do have intercourse, or something. But, honestly, Rabbit has sex with Janice, Jill and a woman named Peggy Fosnacht who he in the least fondles. As far as I could make out, Rabbit also has sex with a fourth person, but if anyone is the slut, it's Rabbit.

The question is why. Updike's books could be alternatively labeled the Sexual Adventures of Harry Angstrom. What's driving these adventures beyond random horny impulses? I might argue that with Updike's inclusion of the moon landing and related events like the launching of Soyuz 6 or the release of Stanley Kubrick's film, the idea of space exploration was in the country's collective consciousness. Rabbit's sexual explorations could be a loose metaphor. How else do I explain on page 259 the threesome that happens between Rabbit, Skeeter and Jill? How else do you explain on page 179 Updike's use of a quote from aboard the Soyuz about rape?

Regardless of the racism and sexuality, which have no purpose or point-of-view, as far as I could tell, Updike can create beautiful prose. Chapter 2 begins with an amazing line. "Days, pale slices between nights, they blend, not exactly alike, transparencies so lightly tinted that only stacked all together do they darken to a fatal shade." Updike also experiments stylistically, incorporating Linotype into the prose, which becomes a clever way of conveying exposition.

I couldn't make heads-or-tails of the fourth chapter. By the time that last chapter rolled around, I didn't want to make heads-or-tails. I lost interest after the reveal of the plot developments at the end of chapter three. There is an arson mystery that really underwhelmed me. Things not congealing over all also contributed to my disinterest in the novel's denouement.

Two Stars out of Five.
Contains language and sexual situations.
ISBN 0-345-46456-7.
353 pages (paperback)


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