RABBIT AT REST

A NOVEL

Updike finishes up his Rabbit tetralogy here, with retired Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom in Florida half the year and then back in Pennsylvania—late in 1989: the last year of Rabbit's life, it turns out. His son Nelson has become a cocaine addict and has run the family Toyota dealership irretrievably to ground. Wife Janice is having late stirrings of independence, studying for a real-estate license. But Harry effectively is beyond the social net: his days are colored by rays of doom, melancholy, desuetude—a winding-down he fights mostly with the only appetite still strong in him, a taste for terrible junk food. The candy, salty snacks, and fried foods he stuffs into himself—Updike's prose about this orgy of junk-eating is unforgettably un judging—bring on two heart attacks. Between them, Harry's other strongest life-force briefly and unexpectedly kicks in as well, involving a one-night mutual consolation, in bed, with Nelson's wife Pru. This central indiscretion is what powers the little plot there is in the book. It is the symbol of Rabbit-in-life, of accumulation and unearned grace (as the junk-food closing up his arteries is the symbol of his impending death, dispersal). Sex, in Updike, is as much youth as anything, what always will be young; Pm says as much to Harry afterwards. And Updike's style is eternally young too—as dour and down as Rabbit is feeling, the book is a grabbing gluttony of detail, about Florida and Pennsylvania and angiography and golf and modern car radios and motels and TV programs. This crazed, immoderately layered glare of specifics is, in some ways, unmeet in a book of farewell. But it is absolutely true to the slightly amoral, excessive, hungry spirit of the Rabbit series. Updike knows it, tying up loose ends from the earlier books in little elegant cinches, making references and in-jokes; it is sometimes more a book about the other books than a wholly interesting thing in itself. But it ends the project very movingly and justly with the ebb-tide slackness of age and the body's treachery and the spirit's unwillingness to surrender youth. It caps a remarkable and unique achievement no other American writer has really pulled off. These try to be—and largely succeed in being—national books. Balzac would have been impressed.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1990

ISBN: 0449911942

Page Count: 586

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Oct. 6, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1990

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Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and...

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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?

For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-53703-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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