Easy Come, Easy Go

Rabbit Is Rich

by John Updike
Knopf, 467 pp., $13.95

John Updike
John Updike; drawing by David Levine

Rabbit Is Rich, the third of John Updike’s romances with his favorite hero, Harry Angstrom (and with Harry’s and our acceleration from discontent to dismay), is a brilliant performance. As always, but more soberly and relevantly than in such subjective books as Couples and Marry Me, Updike revels in his great gifts of style and social—I mean domestic—observation. There have been times in the past when Updike’s style was laid across the page like so many layers of marshmallow. How the prodigy loved his style! But here the always summonable Updike brightness, acuity, prancing wit are mostly on the mark. And the mark is inflation, inflated America careening wildly like an overpressured balloon over the pit of the Seventies.

Apart from the helplessness of the characters, just as drugged by the social fix as some kid on Lenox Avenue, Updike’s own proud voice rings out with a new steeliness—and pronounced lamentation—about a rich, wasteful, wholly selfish, and hard-talking America whose advantage to a writer is that it is always news. That these brilliant touches will remain news I am not sure. What is sure is that we busy, yammering hedonists have lost nothing but confidence. Here is the scene not far from the Toyota agency that Rabbit took over from his dead father-in-law:

Fast-food huts in eye-catching shapes and retail outlets of everything from bridal outfits to plaster birdbaths have widened the shoulders of this, the old Weisertown Pike, with their parking lots, leaving the odd old house and its stump of a front lawn sticking out painfully. Competitors Pike Porsche and Renault, Diefendorfer Volkswagen, Red Barn Mazda and BMW, Diamond County Automotive Imports—flicker their FUEL ECONOMY banners while the gasoline stations intermixed with their beckoning have shrouded pumps and towtrucks parked across the lanes where automobiles once glided in, were filled, and glided on. An effect of hostile barricade, late in the day. Where did the shrouds come from? Some of them quite smartly tailored, in squared-off crimson canvas. A new industry, gas pump shrouds. Among bitter lakes of asphalt a few small stands offer strawberries and early peas.

I don’t remember another novelist nothing these “shrouds.” If one did, I’m sure he didn’t extend his attention to “Some of them quite smartly tailored, in squared-off crimson canvas.” Rabbit Is Rich is more inclusive of the middle-American mores in a middle-sized town (“Brewer” in 1979), and is wittier about the Middle America layer, than anything since 1922 and Babbitt. That is a book Updike (born ten years later) wants you to read still; he quotes from the book and parodies Babbitt’s own father-son relationship (a cheerful one on the whole) in the abrasive gap between Rabbit and his theatrically immature son Nelson.

Sixty years after Sinclair Lewis’s one living book, this is where we are now. Nothing, as they say, has escaped the notice of John Updike, a…

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