The Best Years of His Life:
A literary study of immaturity in American society
John Updike wrote a series of novels commonly known as the “Rabbit Series.” There are currently four novels in this series. While writing multiple novels using the same themes and characters is not unusual, Updike’s sequence of novels is extraordinary. Updike’s first novel in this series is Rabbit, Run which was first published in 1960; his next Rabbit Redux in 1971; Rabbit is Rich in 1981; and Rabbit at Rest in 1990. Thus Updike has produce one volume in every decade for the past four decades. Not only does the reader observe the life of the main character through these years, but the reader also relives certain aspects of each decade. Updike incorporates into each novel the political, social, economic and psychological attributes of American society in each decade. The reader is confronted with the conservatism of the fifties, the first lunar landing in the summer of 1969, the gas shortage of the seventies, and the expansion of the AIDS epidemic in 1989. The reader engages not only the lives of the Rabbit Angstrom family but also the events of American society. One can only hope that Updike will produce another novel in the series in the 2000s.
The central character for the entire series is named Harry Angstrom who is better known as Rabbit. His nickname derives from his high school basketball playing days in which he was as quick and agile as a rabbit on the basketball court. He was the best player at his high school in Brewer, Pennsylvania, “…in his time Rabbit was famous through the county; in basketball in his junior year he set a B-league scoring record that in his senior year he broke…” (“Run” 11). Rabbit’s success in high school athletics won him respect and admiration among his peers. Unfortunately, his early accomplishments did not continue into adulthood. This paper will examine the fictional life of Rabbit Angstrom through the aforementioned novels. We shall examine a reoccurring theme of his life. Rabbit seems to have lived his best years in high school. His life is not only depressing because it depicts a vacant existence, but it is tragic because he never matured beyond his days of glory on the high school basketball court. While others may build upon success in high school, Rabbit cannot get past his early accomplishments. In short, he never matures. Thus Rabbit leads a depressingly superficial and frustrating existence. Updike not only paints a dismal picture of an anti-hero, but he also indicts the shallowness that can be detected in modern American society.
The first novel in this series is Rabbit, Run. The title indicates the predominant action taken by Rabbit in this novel. Rabbit and his wife, Janice have a young boy, and she is pregnant with another child. One day, Rabbit becomes fed up with his life, and he drives away. He leaves his miserable job, his wife and his three-year-old boy, Nelson. He meets a woman named Ruth and moves in with her for a while. Rabbit is introduced to Ruth through his high school coach. At the meeting, Rabbit talks about his basketball prowess, although he is disturbed by the fact that his former coach does not recall the glorious games (“Run” 65). He relives the days when all he had to worry about was shooting baskets. He yearns for his glory days.
Meanwhile, his family is appalled by Rabbit’s behavior. His wife’s family is appalled. Even Rabbit is appalled, but he does not want to face his responsibilities. His wife has a baby girl, Rebecca. Eventually, he makes an uneasy peace with his wife, and Rabbit assumes some responsibility by going to work in his father-in-law’s car sales business. However, Rabbit again disappears one night; and in a state of drunken depression, Janice accidentally allows their baby to drown in the bathtub. Rabbit then runs away from Ruth and reluctantly returns and tries to help, but he is essentially useless. After the funeral, Rabbit goes out for a walk and thinks about his life, “It’s like when they hear you were great and put two men on you and no matter which way you turn you bump into one of them and the only thing you can do is pass” (“Run” 283). The novel ends with this thought as Rabbit runs again into the darkness of the night. Thus Rabbit’s life is an extended metaphor. Although Rabbit rarely frequents a basketball court, he is still playing the game in his mind and in his life.
Rabbit Redux is Updike’s second novel in the series. “Redux” is French for “led back” which usually indicates a return to health from an illness. Ten years have passed since the previous novel. Nelson is a young teenager and Rabbit is now thirty-six years old. Rabbit works with his father in a print shop that is about to go out of business. Janice works for her father in his successful car sales business and is rarely home. Rabbit suspects her of infidelity, and he is justified in his suspicions.
The Angstrom family is dysfunctional at best and a living nightmare normally. In the back of each of their minds is Rabbit’s past infidelity. He was unfaithful not only to Janice but to the family. The Angstrom family is the antithesis of what stereotypical American values would hold dear. The Cleavers they are not. For instance, at a meal at a restaurant, Janice’s amour, Charlie Stavros accidentally meets them there and an awkward interchange takes place that is filled with jealousy and angst.
Janice says to Stavros, “Charlie, why don’t you order for all of us? We don’t know what we are doing.”
Rabbit says, I know what I’m doing. I’ll order for myself. I want the” – he picks something at random- “the paidakia.”
“Paidakia,” Stavros says. I don’t think so. It’s marinated lamb, you need to order it the day before, for at least six.” (“Redux” 45)
Janice’s speech indicates not only the family’s confusion at a Greek restaurant, but the family’s lack of direction and purpose. The Angstroms are floundering and the family is falling apart at the seams. Rabbit, however, refuses to acknowledge his own inadequacies and affirms his patriarchal position in his dysfunctional household.
Rabbit and Janice separate. Rabbit commits further infidelities. Nelson is forced to live with his father because Nelson does not fit into Janice’s plans. Rabbit takes in Jill, who is a runaway. Jill helps out by watching over Nelson. Both Nelson and Rabbit share amorous feelings for Jill and they compete for her attention. Rabbit continues his refusal to behave in a responsible manner. His infidelities are not so much a response to his sexuality as they are a reaction against some part of his life he does not like. His immaturity continues. This novel differs from the first in the degree in which he searches for meaning in his life. In Rabbit, Run, Rabbit runs because he is afraid to face his responsibilities. In Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is desperately seeking for fulfillment in his life. His son, Nelson is a disappointment because he does not engage in manly sports, like basketball. He looks for companionship in Jill, but she understands him all too well, “What have the pig laws done for you except screw you into a greasy job and turn you into such a gutless creep you can’t even keep your idiotic wife?” (“Redux” 152). Rabbit is still playing his perpetual basketball game he calls life. He confronts Stavros regarding his wife; however, “…Stavros has sneaked in for a lay-up and the game is in overtime” (“Redux” 163).
The Angstrom household becomes a seedy commune when they take in Skeeter who is a fugitive and a friend of Jill. The Angstrom house burns down one night and Jill is killed. Rabbit and Nelson were at a friend’s house. The police suspect Skeeter, but Rabbit is convinced that neighbors had set fire to the house because of the unsavory events which were transpiring. Rabbit and Nelson go to live with Rabbit’s parents and Rabbit further reverts back to his youth since he is in the house of his childhood. After a while, Rabbit and Janice reconcile with none of their problems solved, only abated. Rabbit knows he hasn’t matured, but he does not know what to do about it. All he can muster is an anemic, “I’m a mess” (“Redux” 350).
A decade later, Updike publishes “Rabbit is Rich.” Rabbit is now the manager of Springer Motors which was Janice’s father’s business. Janice’s father has since passed away and Janice has inherited his part of the business. Rabbit is left to run the business as Janice spends most of her time working on her backhand at the county club. Rabbit regularly plays golf at the country club. They have no financial worries. The other part of the business still belongs to Janice’s mother with whom they live in their very large house. Stavros still works at the car lot, and he and Rabbit have become good friends. Nelson is twenty-three years old and has dropped out of Kent State and is seemingly directionless. Nelson decides he would like to try his hand at selling cars at Springer Motors and moves into the house with Rabbit, Janice and Ma Springer.
Rabbit has immortalized his high school basketball playing days by having the newspaper clippings about his glory days framed and hung at Springer Motors. The headline reads, “Angstrom Hits For 42. Rabbit leads Mt. Judge Into Semi Finals” (“Rich” 2). There is still no sign of Rabbit’s maturation. The Angstroms say and do little things which purposefully hurt each other. They do this out of spite, playfulness and revenge. Each person is carrying his or her own baggage of hate and guilt. During one argument, Rabbit blurts, “Janice, what have I done to this kid to deserve this?” To which she replies, “Oh, I expect you know” (“Rich” 114). It seems that they have achieved some level of familiar comfort from this puerile behavior.
Rabbit and Nelson tentatively sell cars together; however, their relationship does not improve. At best they are argumentative, but normally they are both juvenile. After one particularly bad disagreement, Nelson goes berserk and crashes two used cars together on the car lot. Rabbit learns that the reason Nelson dropped out of college was because his girlfriend, Pru who was a secretary at Kent State is pregnant. Nelson decides to marry Pru while Harry tries to talk him out of it. Harry wants Nelson to run as Harry had run twenty years before. However, Nelson resists the urge to run, not because he wants to persist in the marriage but because he is afraid to run (“Rich” 223). Janice and her mother decided to let Stavros go in order to make room for Nelson permanently. Nelson is approximately the same age as Harry was in the first novel. Nelson is following in his father’s footsteps. Nelson is experiencing similar problems of commitment, love, and maturity. They both refuse to mature. Rabbit says to Janice,
“I depress the kid.”
“Harry I’m not sure it’s you that’s doing it. I think he’s just scared.”
“What’s he got to be scared of?”
“The same thing you were scared of at his age. Life.”
Life. Too much of it, and not enough. The fear that it will someday end, and the fear that tomorrow will be the same as yesterday. (“Rich” 331)
Janice and Rabbit buy their own house to get away form Nelson and his upcoming family. The next day, the Rabbit and Janice leave for the Caribbean with two other couples their age. There they engage in some spouse swapping. While they are engaged in extramarital activities, Nelson runs away from home, away from his pregnant wife, and away from responsibility. Like father, like son. In Nelson’s absence, Pru has their baby girl. Rabbit and Janice are forced to return early. Nelson sends a post card home asking for money so that he could finish his degree at Kent State. The novel reaffirms the themes found in the previous two novels. Rabbit and his family lead a shallow and disgusting life. Updike’s indictment of American society could not be worse.
Rabbit at Rest is the latest installment of the Angstrom saga. Rabbit and Janice have a winter home in Florida where they spend half a year. Nelson and Pru have two kids. The oldest is Judith who is nine years old, and they have a boy named Roy. Nelson runs Springer Motors under Rabbit’s distant supervision. Nelson and Pru still live in the Springer house; however, Janice’s mother has long since died. Nelson lives mortgage free but has problems financially. Rabbit suspects that Nelson is in some sort of trouble. Nelson’s nose runs all the time.
Rabbit has grown large in girth. He is fifty-six years old and has twinges of pain in his chest. Golf is Rabbit’s major interest in Florida while Janice still swings a tennis racquet. Rabbit and Janice are in their fifties and are semi-retired. Nelson and his family visit Florida. Nelson and Rabbit have their usual, terrible time relating to each other. “The kid and I have something going on between us alright. Not sure love is what you’d call it” (“Rest” 142). Rabbit takes his granddaughter Judy out sailing, and he experiences a heart attack. At the hospital, the doctor gives Janice some advice on nutrition. To which Janice replies that this is what Pru has been advising Harry. “She’s been saying everything you’ve been saying for years to Harry, but he just won’t listen. He thinks he’s above it all, he thinks he’s still a teenager” (“Rest” 141). This has been Rabbit’s perennial problem. Rabbit has never matured beyond his teenage years. He is impervious to good advice, and he thinks the world revolves around him. The same can be said about Nelson.
Rabbit and Janice return to Brewer, Pennsylvania. Janice is taking courses to become a realtor. She wants to achieve some level of independence. Janice confronts Nelson about his cocaine abuse. Nelson owes tens of thousands of dollars to drug dealers, and he has embezzled over $200,000 from Springer Motors. Nelson enters rehab and Rabbit undergoes angioplasty and the doctors are recommending multiple bypass heart surgery. Rabbit is unable to control his eating habits even though it is killing him. At a Fourth of July celebration, Rabbit dons an Uncle Sam suit and marches through town. He is greeted by cheers. The town “…still loves him, as it did when he would score forty-two points for them in a single home game. He is a legend, a walking cloud” (“Rest” 307). Rabbit basks in the attention the town gives him. He relishes the cheers as if he were playing basketball again. His best days were in high school. Rabbit never matured beyond these years.
The Angstrom’s lives are falling apart, but that has been the normal course of events for the entire family. In a self-indulgent and self-defeating act of desperation, Rabbit and Pru who were feeling sorry for themselves have an incestuous encounter. When Pru confesses to Nelson and Janice, Rabbit makes a run for it - again. He returns to their Florida condo to avoid confrontation. Rabbit, in an attempt to exercise, begins to play basketball with local teenagers. One day he has a major heart attack while playing basketball. The thought that rumbles through his head while he was in the hospital was that he was winning. Janice goes to Florida to be at his side. The depressing thought she had was, “He had come to bloom early and by the time she got to know him... he was already drifting downhill…” (“Rest” 423). His wife reaches the conclusion that Rabbit’s best days were his days of glory on the basketball court.
The novel closes with Rabbit dying in the hospital. Janice prays for God’s will to be done, though she harbors thoughts of freedom. Nelson is crying in anguish. Rabbit manages to blurt out, “Well, Nelson, all I can tell you is, it isn’t too bad” (“Rest” 425).
The four novels are a hideous indictment and reflection of American society. It depicts a society abundant with self-centered indulgence and shallowness. Materialism is America’s ultimate measure of success. The idea of morality is found empty. Bigotry reigns. Religious values are faked by most of its practitioners. Intellectual achievement is non-existent. Individual honor and dignity are old-fashioned precepts that no longer apply. Rabbit never grows up. His puerile behavior is easily attributed to American society.
This truly depressing set of novels is delicious poison. The novels are painful to read, but they are also irresistible. Like Rabbit who must cut out salty junk foods, the reader and Rabbit must indulge in just one more deadly bite. There is no self-control.
Updike, John. Rabbit at Rest. New York: Fawcett Crest. 1990.
_____, Rabbit is Rich. New York: Fawcett Crest. 1981.
_____, Rabbit Redux. New York: Fawcett Crest. 1971.
_____, Rabbit, Run. New York: Fawcett Crest. 1960.