« 1983 | 1982 »


Rabbit Is Rich

By John Updike

Original Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Current Publisher: Ballantine Books (Random House Publishing Group)

Amity Gaige writes:

I see Rabbit coming towards me on imagined streets – tall, big-eared, vaguely predatory, tugging uneasily at coat or collar. For me, Rabbit Angstrom will always stand in the center of the canon of American characters. This is not to say that I see him as an everyman. John Updike was incapable of writing in generalities, and Rabbit is somehow too twisted and too specific to win the badge of universality. I think Updike did something even greater with Rabbit Angstrom, in linking his four relentless, readable, acid and finally very sad Rabbit novels to four separate decades of American life: Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1990). He created some vision, some way of seeing (through Rabbit’s eyes), that still feels to me today like a collective or aggregate American consciousness – a restless, wisecracking, hyper-sexualized Oversoul.

In 1982, Rabbit is Rich won not only the National Book Award (then called the American Book Award), but also the Pulitzer. I suppose this astonishing recognition came once his exhausted critics realized Updike wasn’t going to give up his inimitable writing style, a combination of fierce intelligence and descriptive hysteria. Rereading Rabbit is Rich now, in 2009, I noticed two things: one, that Rabbit isn’t rich, and two, that what he is and always was running from is consequence. The book finds Rabbit at age 46, working in his dead father-in-law’s car dealership and still living with his mother-in-law. He and his wife Janice want their own house, but the only way they manage to scrape together a down payment is by investing in silver coins on a tip. Home comes their dysfunctional son, Nelson, with a pregnant girlfriend in tow. In the figure of Nelson, Rabbit is Rich addresses both the consequences of the first two Rabbit novels, and, more profoundly, the consequences of the unstable 1960s and 70s in America. Nelson, the grown child, stands as embodied consequence. Nelson hates his dad, and Rabbit hates him right back because he knows how justified the boy is, what a half-hearted father he was – inconstant, unaccountable, and selfish. Rabbit senses that he is being summoned for judgment, yet he still runs. It’s a heartbreaker when, toward the end of the book, Rabbit and another woman fall out of a small boat and Rabbit scrambles to embrace her underwater, telling himself it’s a furtive embrace of lust when it’s really because he’s afraid of sharks. Rabbit’s confidence is wearing thin. He’s becoming shrill. He is like an ant trapped in a sugar bowl – happy as long as he doesn’t think about how it will end.

I didn’t discover Rabbit until my twenties, and I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to be Rabbit’s contemporary, to have grown up with him over those decades, to have measured my own fate and my own limitations against his. Rarely has a single character been so faithfully followed for so many years by so many readers. Rarely has anyone written like John Updike. As a writer, he dared his fellows to be perceptive, to be honest, and above all to be specific. How large his footprint, how ghosted.

Amity Gaige was selected by Christopher Sorrentino as one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 in 2006 for her first novel, O My Darling. Her second novel, The Folded World (Other Press, 2007) was named ForeWord Book of the Year.


Nancy Werlin writes:

I came to Rabbit is Rich recently, and only out of duty; it was my book club's pick for May. I slogged away for the first 100 pages and more, feeling small sympathy for Harry Angstrom, wondering if the book was dated past relevance, and (mea culpa) sneering at what I felt was its florid prose. I'm not sure where I started to read snippets aloud admiringly to my husband. I don't know when I started wanting Harry to win the battle with his wife and mother in law to run the car dealership. I'm not sure why I found I agreed with Harry's judgment about his son. And I'm still amazed at how hard I hoped that Harry would somehow get sweet little Cindy in bed. (Just once. Couldn't he have her just once?) I didn't become deeply involved with reading Rabbit is Rich. Instead, reading it, I became deeply involved with Harry Angstrom.

Nancy Werlin was a National Book Award Finalist in Young People’s Literature in 2006 for her novel, The Rules of Survival. She is currently the chair of the National Book Awards YPL panel.


ISBN: 9780449911822

Fiction (Hardcover) Finalists that Year:

  • Mark Helprin for Ellis Island and Other Stories
  • John Irving for The Hotel New Hampshire
  • Robert Stone for A Flag for Sunrise
  • William Wharton for Dad

Fiction Judges that Year: Not available

The Year in Literature:

  • Rabbit Is Rich by John Updike also won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Gabriel García Márquez won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:  

  • Rabbit Is Rich is the third novel in John Updike’s four-part series, which begins with Rabbit, Run and Rabbit Redux, and ends with Rabbit at Rest.
  • There is also a related 2001 novella, Rabbit Remembered.

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