A Document of the Quotidian Jul 13, 2009
The Rabbit Angstrom quartet is a major achievement in postwar 20th century American fiction. In delineating the life of his protagonist Harry Angstrom through four decades, John Updike displays a scope and amplitude of vision that is rarely seen in fiction these days.
From the 1950s to the oil crisis of the 1980s, from Rabbit's early marriage to his unlikely success as the inheritor of his father-in-law's Toyota dealership to his death, the author takes in a swath of American history as filtered through the perspective of a working class white male in the small town of Brewster, Pennsylvania, a territory as fully mapped and wholly imagined as Faulkner's Yoknapatawha County or Garcia Marquez's Macondo.
In addition Updike has the courage to leave unvarnished the limitations of his hero's character: his propensity to call his wife Janet "a dumb mutt," his tendency to stereotype African Americans and Asians, his waywardness. Rabbit Angstrom isn't always likable, but as a quintessentially American Everyman, why would he be?
Perhaps most telling is Rabbit's evasion of responsibility and attempts at flight, his infidelities, his conflicted bond with his son Nelson. To be a man such as Rabbit, Updike tells the reader, is to be a "failed boy," perenially nostalgic for his days as a high school basketball star.
By focusing on the small domestic drama, Updike seems somehow to encompass all of our lives writ large. Without Philip Roth's metafictional devices or Norman Mailer's egocentric New Journalism, John Updike has written a document of the quotidian, the everyday, and in this superb quartet, the postwar Great American Novel. He seems to me our last great realist. Highly recommended.