Harry Angstrom (his childhood nickname was Rabbit, though only the narrator calls him that now) went through a pretty dramatic quarter-life crisis in Rabbit, Run. Faced with becoming a father and an alcoholic wife he’s not sure he really loves, Rabbit tried to run away, but only made it a few towns away before returning to Brewer, PA and entering into a relationship with a prostitute. Eventually he returned to Janice, his wife, to fulfill his matrimonial duty, but only after drunk and distraught Janice accidentally drowned their second child in the bath.
Redux picks up 10 years later from when Run left off. Harry is now in his 30s and he and Janice, in an effort to amend their past, have fallen into a rut, living out domestic life as if on autopilot. This time, it’s Janice’s turn to run away. She takes up relations with a coworker and moves into his apartment across town.
Rabbit doesn’t do much (anything) to get his wife back; he even fails, or at least refuses, to see that simply fighting for her is perhaps all she wants. Instead, living at home with their adolescent son, Harry takes in a couple drifters. One, Jill, is a wayward teenage girl, a runaway from an affluent Connecticut family, and confused recovering drug addict who becomes Harry’s live-in mistress of sorts. The other, an African-American Vietnam vet named Skeeter, is also a drug addict (he thinks he’s a black messiah) as well as a wanted fugitive.
They become a twisted family of a kind, living under one roof, smoking reefer, talking politics and extremist philosophy. The environment is obviously toxic, though Harry again either fails or refuses to act. This is, of course, as much a story about a time and place as it is about the characters. Much like its predecessor, Rabbit Redux is the portrait of an era, a generation. Harry is the Everyman, caught in the swirl of the world.
The life Updike depicts here is dark and sad, but there’s a hopeful vivacity beneath it all. As much as you want to slap Harry when he makes questionable (in)decisions, you can’t help but admire him for testing the limits. Being paralyzed in the face of change is something most of us can relate to in some way, so seeing Harry, be it for fear or dégagé or anything else, poke at the status quo and pull at the seams of his safe life forces no small degree introspection–both for him and the reader. The result is a glimpse at what life really is. It’s not some plan laid before us like a dotted line to follow, instead it’s a long–ceaseless while we breathe–succession of choices and consequences. For all the hardship that befalls Harry, most all of it pursuant to his own actions, it’s a fair conclusion that he feels much more alive by the novel’s the end.
Updike’s writing is both impeccable and beautiful. He never lingers on details long, America is painted for the reader in long strokes, creating a landscape like you’d see from a moving car on a road trip. Not just the physical landscape either: politics, ideals, lifestyles, prejudices, fears: the scope of what he is able to render is astounding. This is a book with a lot to say–when you hear the phrase “Great American Novel” tossed around, it’s referring to books like the Rabbit series.