My, perhaps regrettable, first instinct on being asked to reveal my favourite book is to cheat by choosing John Updike’s four volume Rabbit saga, Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest. I could defend this by pointing out that chronic dishonesty is one of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom’s characteristics throughout the tetralogy, but more effective is my defence that it has now been published in one volume as Rabbit Angstrom.
The books tell the life story of Harry, who is a complex and believable individual at the same time as representing America from the palmy days of the 1950s through the chaos of the sixties, the decadence of the seventies, and in his case the acceptance of death in the 80s. The tale starts with a 26-year-old who is already past his best, nostalgic for his time as a schoolboy sports star (a recurring theme for chroniclers of “ordinary America”, including Bruce Springsteen in his song Glory Days).
The first thing to love is, as ever, Updike’s prose. He is both a compelling story-teller who can engage you with a cast of characters none of whom is conventionally lovable while revealing in a phrase the deepest truths of American life. The text swings back and forth from the omniscient author to the consciousness of various characters, almost all of whom are credible and authentic when pushed into the spotlight.
The second magnificent feature of Rabbit is the one which most often attracts praise; its capacity to illuminate America and Americans though the story of one unremarkable man. Harry works in a shop, a factory, and then as a car salesman. His home is a decaying industrial town in Pennsylvania. His life is a mixture of honest work and less honest personal relations. He has lots of sex with a number of women. Perhaps the most obvious piece of symbolism is when he plays Uncle Sam in a parade.
Most readers will have got the point well before that. This is the story of post-war America, and therefore an important story for the whole twentieth-century world. It is not a simple arc upwards or downwards. Harry may never again hit his personal heights as a 50s schoolboy, young and with the world at his feet, but by the third book’s title Rabbit is Rich. America has delivered material success to this unremarkable specimen. The dream has worked in that sense.
However the misery created for many people along the way is a big price to pay. Wives, girlfriends and children are visited by tragedy. Babies die, young girls are burned to death in house fires, the whole town is aware that something is wrong with the world. At the end Harry goes to Florida to die, as Americans do, with a sense of acceptance. “All I can tell you is, it isn’t so bad” are his last words.
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There cannot be a more enjoyable way of being forced to think about modern America and its energy and imperfections. Set aside a large amount of time, and read Rabbit slowly.
Damian Green is the Member of Parliament for Ashford and Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.