I read this book and its sequels (three more novels and a novella) for a grad class about 15 years ago, and I am returning to it out of curiosity, and as I look into some other John Updike books we didn’t get into for that class. John Updike is pretty much a rorshach test in a lot of ways, not in the sense that it’s indicative of your test or sensibility, but in how he allows you to address the very heart and problems of white middle class masculinity in the US for the 20th century. He’s written some very good novels, and some really bad novels; good criticism and bad criticism; good short stories and bad short stories; and bad poetry.
I was surprised to find how much different I saw this book now that I am around 40 and much older than Rabbit, from when I read it at 25 all those years ago. I am no super sympathetic with Rabbit anymore, while a) never experiencing his exact problems, and b) having some of the same qualities he has.
Rabbit Angstrom is married at 26 with one kid and another on the way. He’s a former high school basketball star living in medium town Pennsylvania (a town comparable to Reading), and his life doesn’t seem to have a lot of purpose or meaning for him. No real job, waywardness, but I wouldn’t call it depression. So he runs out on his wife, seeks his old high school coach, begins an affair with a woman who is sometimes, but not this moment a sex worker, while deciding what if any pull anyone from his old life has on him. And in the midst of it, his local preacher decides this is the right time to minister to him. He’s deciding to live the most indulgent and self-absorbed life his life will allow.
The book is MUCH harsher on him than I remembered, but still allows him to pay out his fantasies. I still find it compelling.