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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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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