RABBIT IS RICH

A NOVEL

Should Updike's longer fiction prove truly lasting, it may well be in the form of the Rabbit novels—if only because they will so precisely tell future generations what the aging, late-20th-century industrial East of the US was like in sight, smell, sound, and social economy. But why are these novels so interesting to today's readers, for whom the mirror-like sociological surfaces are only a minor attraction? It's their riskiness—the risks that Updike takes in subordinating his supple, reedy intelligence to the far-different Rabbit, an innocent when young (in Run), confused by the Sixties (Redux), and now, in 1979, an incipient Archie Bunker. Legatee to his dead father-in-law's Toyota dealership (doing superbly in 1979, year of the gas-lines), Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom is 46, living again with wife Janice—her ex-lover Charlie Stavros is now Rabbit's co-worker and good friend—in her mother's Brewer, Pa. house. But Rabbit's having trouble with son Nelson, 23: the kid has brought a girl back from college with him—and there's yet another girl, left behind (and pregnant), whom he'll soon have to marry. Nelson's plight, to his father's eyes, seems pathetic, spoiled, distasteful (too much like young Rabbit's messiness?). After all, Rabbit is now "rich." He reads Consumer Reports, even while Janice is initiating lovemaking (a heavy-handed scene, as are such other sexual/economic images as Rabbit's placing Kruggerands on Janice's nipples). He's a golfer at a country club for "a class of young middle-aged that has arisen in the retail business and service industries." He even plays sexual swapsies on a Caribbean vacation. And Rabbit "sees his life as just beginning, on clear ground at last, now that he has a margin of resources, and the stifled terror that always made him restless has dulled down. He wants less. Freedom, that he always thought was outward motion, turns out to be this inner dwindling." Thus death, plenary, is always on his mind: he searches out Ruth, the prostitute he briefly lived with in Run, in quest of a possible daughter they may have had together; though Nelson's a pain, he at least bequeathes to Rabbit a granddaughter; and the book's most luminous scene is Rabbit and Janice telling her old mother that they've bought a house of their own and are therefore clearing out of hers. Yet the book, tugged at by the gravity of age, is stalled at its heart. Rabbit's innocence doesn't feel storm-tossed enough; if Redux was slightly too operatic, far-fetched, Rich is too placidly striated. Moments are marvelous—a Sunday afternoon sunset at the country club, telling a mildly amusing story only to have it picked to death by interruptions—but some also seem tiredly obligatory (e.g., a catalogue-aria of a guest bathroom that's too reminiscent in purpose and angle to the drugstore inventory in Redux). And Updike's larruping, clausal sentences double the book back on itself tightly—perhaps to suggest Rabbit's new safe burgher-ness, but perhaps, too, because of a lack of real energy. Still, whatever its limitations as a narrative, this is commanding work from a writer whose great, wide intelligence is probably unrivaled in American fiction: Rabbit lives, if perhaps a bit less vitally now, and most serious readers will want to keep track of him.

Pub Date: Oct. 7, 1981

ISBN: 0449911829

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Oct. 6, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1981

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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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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