Eat My News: Rabbit Recapped

The global media platform Eat My News published a primer on “Exploring John Updike’s Iconic ‘Rabbit’ Series” on October 26, 2023. For what is apparently the first installment of a series, contributor Anushka Dabhade began,

“In the realm of American literature, few authors have left as indelible a mark as John Updike. His ‘Rabbit’ series, comprising four novels that span several decades, offers readers a profound exploration of the human condition and the evolution of a character named Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. As we embark on this literary journey, we’ll unravel the complexities of these novels, their impact on readers, and the enduring legacy of John Updike.”

Dabhade ended this segment with this summary: “John Updike’s ‘Rabbit’ series is a literary journey that transcends time and place. Through the eyes of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, readers are invited to ponder the complexities of human existence and the ever-changing landscape of American life. As you embark on this literary voyage, you’ll discover why Updike’s ‘Rabbit’ series continues to be a source of fascination and contemplation for generations of readers.”

Read what’s in-between, and apparently stay tuned.


Washington Post reviewer considers Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe alongside Updike’s Harry Angstrom

The Washington Post has a paywall, but if you’re a subscriber you might want to read John Williams’ thoughtful extended review of Richard Ford’s newest book, Be Mine: “A Eulogy for everymen: Updike’s Rabbit and Ford’s Frank Bascombe.”

Calling the two fictional characters “quintessentially 20th-century protagonists,” Williams began by establishing a relationship between the two:

“Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom and Frank Bascombe have been mentioned together quite often for two men who don’t have all that much in common. John Updike introduced Angstrom in 1960 in Rabbit, Run, the first book in his vaunted series about a suburban salesman. Richard Ford, who was only 16 in 1960, has just published Be Mine, the fifth book featuring his garrulous, uncannily even-tempered narrator Bascombe, who first appeared in The Sportswriter.

“In 2014, Ford told the New Yorker that the relationship between his books and Updike’s was “complicated,” elaborating: “I have to say, with no reluctance, that if John hadn’t written the Rabbit books I might not have thought (as his contemporary) that three, then four, books about a real-estate salesman in New Jersey could be plausible.” He went on to highly praise Updike but also noted that he had read only one of the four Rabbit novels all the way through.

“Aside from the obvious fact that they are protagonists of multivolume series by popular and acclaimed writers, Rabbit and Frank have been linked throughout the years by what they’ve been taken to represent: Each has been called an ‘everyman’ too many times to count. It’s a word — and a projection — redolent of the 20th century. We’re too culturally atomized now to expect even broadly drawn individuals to reflect our collective life in any meaningful way, and of course those labeled ‘everyman’ have nearly always been White suburban males, whose relevance as cultural avatars (much less weathervanes) has been in steep decline. This all leaves aside the fact that Ford and Updike have both written eloquently to say that these characters are not meant to represent anything but themselves.”

Read the whole article.

Time magazine retro reviews: Telephone Poles and Of the Farm

It’s always interesting to look back at early reviews of an author’s work.

Time magazine’s Nov. 1, 1963 review of John Updike’s volume of poetry, Telephone Poles, noted that “Updike has neither [Ogden] Nash’s bewildered air of good sense wrapped in metrical nonsense nor [Morris] Bishop’s malicious delight in destroying his targets in a single, whiplashing line. His tone is more urbane and more lyrical, a bit reminiscent of Britain’s John Betjeman.”

Two years later, in their Nov. 12,1965 issue, Time reviewed Updike’s Of the Farm and warned readers that Updike’s fourth novel “will disappoint those admirers who have been waiting hopefully for a major talent to produce a major work. Instead of expanding, the Updike compass seems to be narrowing, as if its wielder were desirous of proving that he can, if need be, engrave his graceful arabesques on the head of a pin. Of the Farm barely qualifies as a novel; it is too brief, inactive, and unambitious. But as a delicate cameo that freezes three people in postures that none of them finds comfortable, it is almost faultless. Its achievement is that with incredibly economical means, it suggests that each of these people will change, develop, shift in their relations to each other and makes the reader wonder what their future will be. Its failure is that Updike never explores that future.”

Times writer reconsiders Updike’s Couples

UK First Edition/First Printing

In “Rereading: Couples by John Updike review—a melancholy anatomy of adultery,” David Mills began, “John Updike’s 1968 novel Couples has a notorious reputation: it is regarded as a sex book, an explicit manual of swinging high jinks in the ‘post-pill paradise’ of the early 1960s.” He conceded, “There certainly are passages that come across as route-one porn” and provided examples, but took exception with David Foster Wallace’s well-known description of Updike as “just a penis with a thesaurus.”

Within Couples‘ “five-section structure, one unconventionally focuses entirely away from the main character of Dutch builder Piet Hanema, and the prose itself can be tricky, with Piet given stream-of-consciousness interior monologues of almost Joycean complexity.

“Above all, this is a novel about sexual dynamics that in its choreography of shifting relationships becomes a melancholy anatomy of adultery,” Mills wrote, with this qualification: “Of course, it is a white, phallocentric novel with moments of racial stereotyping and casual male violence that make us blench now, but if its social attitudes and assumptions haven’t aged well, then neither have Jane Austen’s.”

Read the full review published in The Sunday Times [UK].

Pennsylvania History considers The Pennsylvania Updike

In retrospect, maybe it was a perfect storm of sorts, with Jack De Bellis’s John Updike’s Early Years coming out in 2013, Adam Begley covering some Berks County ground in his biography Updike in 2014, and James Plath collecting and commenting on John Updike’s Pennsylvania Interviews in 2016. But it took Richard Androne to see the connections and to take a page from Updike’s book reviews and treat them in a single article.

“The Pennsylvania Updike” was published in Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 85:1 (Winter 2018), though it first came to our attention recently.

“The centrality of Pennsylvania, and especially of his native Berks County, in author John Updike’s life, literary achievement, and ultimate vision comes through vividly in Adam Begley’s biography Updike, Jack Debellis’s more specialized study John Updike’s Early Years, and James Plath’s collection of Updike’s Pennsylvania interviews, many of which were done in Updike’s home county,” Androne wrote.

“Until he was eighteen and left for Harvard, Updike said, ‘there were hardly twenty days that I didn’t spend in Pennsylvania,’ and while after that departure he no longer lived in Berks County for an extended period, he said, ‘though I left Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania has never left me. It figures in much of my work, and not just the earlier.'”

Androne wrote, “just as James Joyce had to leave Ireland to write about it in many of his finest works, Updike had to leave Berks County. Updike told one interviewer, ‘There comes a time when you must test yourself against the world,’ and to another he said, ‘I think I couldn’t have had my writing career if I had stayed in Pennsylvania. On the other hand, I couldn’t have had my writing career if I hadn’t had all that Pennsylvania experience.”

“De Bellis argues even more strongly than Begley for the influence of the physical and cultural Shillington—and especially for that of Updike’s high school classmates—on his work, uncovering numerous parallels between persons and places in life and art. Especially useful in this regard is material in the chapter, ‘Inspirations and Models,'” Androne wrote. Plath, meanwhile, “supplies a perceptive and useful introduction and conclusion in which he synthesizes some of the material in this anthology of interviews. He is particularly good at identifying common denominators in Updike’s comments on Berks County and Pennsylvania in a larger sense.”

Androne wrote that the three Updike books “complement each other and can profitably be read together both by scholars and general readers seriously interested in Updike. Among the many instances of this is Plath’s inclusion of William Ecenbarger’s June 12, 1983 article, ‘Updike Is Home,’ a Shillington interview Begley also uses in his first chapter as illustrative of Updike’s artistic method of turning his own experience into art, in this case a July 4, 1983, New Yorker story called ‘One More Interview’ published less than a month after Ecenbarger’s article, and both the interview and Begley’s treatment of Updike’s story are enhanced by the Shillington detail in De Bellis’s book.”

Chicago writer offers his take on Rabbit, Run

In an August 16, 2022 blog entry, Patrick T. Reardon stepped into his wayback machine and reviewed Updike’s most famous novel from the mindset of a 21st century “essayist, poet, literary critic and an expert on the city of Chicago.” Reardon, who has written about his Catholic faith and was a longtime reporter for the Chicago Tribune, began,

“At the start, Harry Angstrom, nicknamed Rabbit, is running away. Later, he is running to—to the hospital. At the end, he is running willy-nilly, without direction, into the unknown.”

Reardon broke the novel into three acts, with the first ending when Rabbit hooks up with his old coach Marty Tothero and the prostitute Ruth. The second section “opens two months later and covers Rabbit’s life with Ruth, a life abruptly fractured when Janice goes into labor, Rabbit runs to the hospital in Brewer and moves back in with his family, now with a new daughter Rebecca June. The third section, much shorter, just 37 pages, has to do with tragedy. And it ends with Rabbit wandering away from a cemetery and then, in ‘an effortless gathering out of a kind of sweet panic,’ breaking into a run.'”

“As I was working my way through the first section of Rabbit, Run,” Reardon wrote, “I was puzzled that anyone would want to read so much about a guy who seemed aimless, selfish and irresponsible. By the time I finished the book, I was far beyond such puzzlement. I wanted to know what happened next to Rabbit and immediately ordered a copy of Rabbit Redux.”

“As for Harry Angstrom, I came to find him compelling for the same reasons I initially found him distasteful. Rabbit is an existential Everyman who is searching for a life that’s equivalent to the feel of taking a shot and seeing the basketball go in through the ‘high perfect hole,'” Reardon wrote.

Reardon concluded, “When Rabbit runs, it seems that he is fleeing. But that’s not exactly true. Neither is he running toward something. He is, throughout Rabbit, Run, grasping for, searching for, yearning for a ‘high perfect hole’ of meaning. . . . But it can’t be found. So, like the instinctual young child who is filled with feelings and desires for which there is no language, he leaves behind the mental and the emotional and opts for the physical. He runs.”

Read the whole review

New-old review of Updike’s Roger’s Version appears

The blog recently posted an unsigned, undated “Book Review: John Updike’s Version of Roger.”

“This book is less an emotional exercise than an intellectual gambit, with the provability of the Almighty as its leitmotif. While to prove the existence of the Judeo-Christian God is certainly not a new sport, Updike chooses to play by significantly different rules than those that constrain the likes of St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Leibniz, Hume, Kant” and instead “launches his argumentative and theological rays against the backdrop of modern scientific thought and method, evoking evolution, the Big Bang, and the binary oddball of today’s supercomputers. Planck and Heisenberg collide with Kierkegaard and Karl Barth, resulting in an electrical charge that permeates Updike’s always literate and frequently erudite pages,” the author writes.

Read the full review

Lethbridge Herald writer sees mixed messages in Updike’s The Coup

In the Lethbridge Herald [Canada], Trevor Busch wrote, “Today’s Africa is finally a reawakening giant” that “seems increasingly ready to join a family of nations as developed and free societies.

“In the early 1970s, things were much different. Africa was a wild west of cowboy diplomacy as both the Soviet Bloc and the United States faced off in numerous African backwaters over ideological differences, with both sides arming their own ideologicallly-friendly regimes in a deadly game of Cold War cat and mouse.

“Unfortunately freedom—no matter what side of the political spectrum Africans found themselves under these various regimes—was an unintended casualty of proxy warfare.

“American novelist John Updike stepped into this maelstrom with The Coup (1978). Set in a fictional sub-Saharan African nation known as Kush during the early 1970s, it follows the struggles of dictator Col. Ellellou in attempting to prevent a pro-Western coup from sweeping him from power and instituting a style of government and economy he most hates.”

Busch added, “While The Coup closely follows events in Africa involving Col. Ellellou and his failing regime, it also serves as a scathing rebuke of American Cold War foreign policy in Africa, and is illustrative of the contradictions and hypocrisy that were inherent in both superpowers propping up tin-pot dictators in the name of freedom. . . . Through the hybrid character of Ellellou, Updike takes the reader on a journey that exposes the best and worst of 20th century Africa as well as America.”

“Although Ellellou is nothing if not a fascinating character . . . it tends to beg the question how he attained power in the first place, something which Updike mostly side-steps in the novel.

“Other characters in The Coup are sometimes almost laughingly one-sided, especially women, who serve almost no purpose for Ellellou other than sexual concubines for his satisfaction. . . . While Updike’s The Coup is a fascinating exploration of how late 20th century Americans viewed their nation’s own foreign policy choices through the viewpoint of a hostile but perceptive outsider, the novel falls entirely short of greatness.

“The reader is left wondering if The Coup is meant to be an abstract polemic or a realistic tale of a violent change of government in a poor African nation.”

Or perhaps a third possibility that seems to resonate with American readers: That it’s a comic novel, a satire of American over-consumption and arrogance, as well as a satire of the African dictators caught in the middle of all these Cold War shenanigans?

Sixties’ reviewer compares Rabbit to Holden Caulfield

Reading early reviews of now-acclaimed novels is always a fun pastime, and Literary Hub tickled readers with reprinted excerpts from David Boroff’s Nov. 6, 1960 New York Times review of Rabbit, Run, along with a cheerily tawdry cover of a reprint edition of the novel:

“At the beginning of this moving and often brilliant novel, ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom quietly watches a group of boys playing basketball. Then, shedding his coat, he joins them at play, demonstrating superbly the virtuosity that eight years earlier had made him the star of his high school team. This opening defines the mood of nostalgia and unquiet adulthood that characterizes John Updike’s Rabbit, Run.

“Rabbit is an older and less articulate Holden Caulfield. An urban cipher, he is trapped by wife, baby, an uncongenial job as demonstrator for a new kitchen utensil.

“‘You get the feeling,’ he says, ‘you’re in your coffin before they’ve taken your blood.’ Like his younger prototype, he is an uneasy picaresque hero who discovers you can run but cannot really flee. And in back of all the restlessness there is an unslaked thirst for spiritual truth.”

“This is the stuff of shabby domestic tragedy—and Mr. Updike spares the reader none of the spiritual poverty of the milieu. The old people are listless and defeated, the young noisily empty. The novel, nevertheless, is a notable triumph of intelligence and compassion; it has none of the glib condescension that spoils so many books of this type. The characters have an imposing complexity.”

“The author’s style is particularly impressive: artful and supple, its brilliance is belied by its relaxed rhythms. Mr. Updike has a knack of tilting his observations just a little, so that even a commonplace phrase catches the light. The prose is that rarest of achievements: a perfectly pitched voice for the subject.

“The treatment of sex commands our attention. For Rabbit, its expression is the final measure of the quality of experience. The author is utterly explicit in his portrayal of Rabbit’s divagations—but the description is as seemly as it is candid, for Mr. Updike is primarily interested in the psychic underside of sexuality. Nevertheless, there are some not easily-ignored footnotes about the erotic sophistication of the post-war generation that will shock the prudish.

Rabbit, Run is a tender and discerning study of the desperate and the hungering in our midst. A modest work, it points to a talent of large dimensions—already proved in the author’s New Yorker stories, and his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair. John Updike, still only 28 years old, is a man to watch.”

Updike’s Witches are reappraised 330 years after Salem

In “Revisiting The Witches of Eastwick 330 Years After Salem” for the Chicago Review of Books, Chicago-based writer Sara Batkie writes, “Fifty-odd years ago, covens were the locus of Satanic activity in such movies and books as Rosemary’s Baby and Suspiria. But the rise of second-wave feminism and women in the workforce in the late ’70s and early ’80s gave way to a gentler, more domestic spellcaster, a trend arguably initiated by John Updike’s 1984 novel The Witches of Eastwick and the film adaptation three years later.”

After giving credit where she thinks credit is due, Batkie offers a refrain that’s familiar to Updike readers: “Most of his previous work was steeped in middle class realism, bound by such earthly concerns as which friend’s wife to sleep with and the masculine urge to escape from familial obligations. The inner lives of women were not often foregrounded, to put it generously, though Updike was one of our most skilled sensualists, and it’s clear he admired the ‘fairer sex,’ even if he didn’t always understand them.”

Batkie suggests that maybe Updike added witchcraft to his first real attempt to write about the inner lives of women in order to “hedge his bets. If something didn’t ring true to his female readership, it could be attributed to the three women’s unique powers.”

Batkie gives the film higher marks than the novel when 2022 feminism is the standard, but concludes, “So where does that leave us today, post-third-wave and likely post-Roe? Though neither Updike nor [director George] Miller set out to predict our fracturing present, both versions of The Witches of Eastwick now feel like a warning, or at least a precaution. Magic has its limits, both personally and politically. A woman’s right to bodily autonomy is no longer a fringe belief, no matter what men in power like Alito might think.”

Batkie is the author of Better Times: Short Stories, which won the 2017 Raz/Shumaker Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction. Read her whole Chicago Review of Books essay here.