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Updike, John

(US, 1932– )

Updike is a great American novelist; he's written over forty books, including stories, poems, essays, and autobiography, but his reputation rests chiefly on the Rabbit sequence. This quartet of novels is about Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom, teenage basketball star of little education and no vocation, tracing his life from his early twenties through four decades to his death. Updike's achievement in these novels is unrivalled, and epic in scale, telling the intimate story not just of one man's life but of America in the second half of the twentieth century. Rabbit, Run (1960), the first book, opens with Rabbit in his fictional home town fifty miles outside Philadelphia. He butts into a kids' basketball game, goes home to his small, blurry, alcoholic wife Janice in their squalid flat, sets out to pick up their 2-year-old son, and decides on the spur of the moment to make a break for it. He spends the book running; south, away from the narrow trap of his life and his job as a magi-peel demonstrator; away from Janice into the arms of big red-haired Ruth. Not idealistic, not responsible, not rich, not clever, not thoughtful beyond his own pleasure, Rabbit is nevertheless one of the most intensely likeable and human characters in fiction. His relation to the world is intensely physical, so that his thoughts are peppered with memories of basketball shots, of climbing splintering telegraph poles, of the feel of women's skin, of golfing strokes. The world of smells and sounds and sight shimmers around him, and at each misfortune, buoys up and distracts him into optimism again. Rabbit, Run ends terribly, as Janice in an alcoholic stupor drowns their baby daughter in the bath, and Ruth falls pregnant. Rabbit is down but not out; he runs again. In Rabbit Redux (1971) Rabbit meets politics (physically, the way he experiences everything else); he's now working as a ‘linotyper’ (soon to be redundant) and involved with rich hippy Jill and her friend, black activist and Vietnam veteran on the run, Skeeter. Rabbit is Rich (1981, Pulitzer Prize) takes Rabbit into the 1970s, a patched-up marriage, a secure job as a car salesman, and affluence; Rabbit at Rest (1990) brings him into the 1980s and a curious reversal, as Janice becomes sharp and competent while he gets old and ill, jealous of his drug-dealing son, still never losing his hunger for life. That the American Dream is cracked and dirty is exposed to the full in these novels and yet—through the loving detail of Rabbit's life and optimism—its vigour is reasserted.

Of Updike's other novels The Coup (1978), about a revolutionary dictatorship in Africa, is fascinating by way of contrast, and for the world it creates. In Couples (1968), as in the Rabbit books, Updike writes wonderfully well about sex.

Russell Banks, Norman Mailer, George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy  JR

Additional topics

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionBooks & Authors: Award-Winning Fiction (Tr-Z)