Rabbit Is Rich
is a 1981 novel by John Updike, the third installment of the celebrated “Rabbit
” series of books. It comes after Rabbit, Run
and Rabbit Redux
, and precedes the final, Rabbit At Rest
. The series deals with the life of former high-school basketball player Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, from his early twenties to his death. The series is considered an American classic, with Julian Barnes calling it the “greatest postwar American novel” in a Guardian piece.
Each book in the series takes place during a certain decade of American history, with Rabbit Is Rich
corresponding to the late 1970’s. Throughout the series, Harry serves as an allegory of sorts for working-to-middle-class small-town America, his life and emotions reflecting the anxieties of his time.
The first two books had covered Harry’s 20s and 30s. Frustrated with life in his hometown of Brewer, Pennsylvania, Harry pursues a series of extramarital relations and experiences various misfortunes: he gets a young girl, Ruth, pregnant, but leaves her before finding out whether she kept the child; his wife Janice drunkenly and accidentally drowns their newborn daughter in the bathtub; and his son Nelson grows to hate him, blaming him for the death of Jill, a girl he loved that was living in their house when it burned down.Rabbit Is Rich
takes up the story in 1979, with Harry at 46. He is middle-aged and gaining weight but lives a comfortable and settled existence. Harry and Janice have moved in with Janice’s mother Bessie since their house burned down in the previous book. Nelson is at college. Harry is the manager and part owner of a Toyota dealership inherited from his father-in-law, and is financially successful. The American economy is down, and his efficient Toyotas are selling well. He works with Charlie Stavros, a man who had run away with Janice in the previous book but who is now his good friend.
One day, Harry takes two young people for a test drive at his job, and wonders whether the woman could be his daughter from his relationship with Ruth. He drives home, giving a reader a tour of sorts of Brewer. He arrives home to some confusion, and Nelson has written to announce he is coming home and bringing a girl named Melanie, who no one has met. A few days later when at the country club with their friends, Harry and Janice get a message to come home as Nelson and Melanie have arrived. Harry’s relationship with Nelson remains strained as the latter still blamed him for Jill’s death.
Nelson takes Charlie’s job at the dealership and Melanie gets a job in a restaurant in town. Harry takes Charlie to meet her, and the two get on particularly well. Nelson scrapes Harry’s car when out with a friend one night.
Harry takes a drive out of town to Galilee where he knows Ruth is living, as he wants to ask about his daughter and the girl he met at the dealership. He imagines seeing Ruth again after 20 years and the ensuing conversation but decides against going through with it at the last minute.
Harry, Janice, and Bessie spend some time in the Poconos, leaving Nelson in charge of the dealership. When Harry comes back, Nelson is proud to show him a set of convertibles that he has bought for the lot, but Harry disagrees with the purchase. Convertibles use a lot of gas and will not sell well in this economy. Furious, Nelson purposely crashes one of the convertibles into another.
Soon after, Harry is once again at the country club when he gets a call from home saying that Nelson’s pregnant fiancée is there. No one had known about the girl, called Pru, and Harry tells Nelson that he will support him if he decides to not marry her. Nelson insists he is happy to do so, and the two get married after a few weeks of planning.
Harry takes another trip to Galilee and this time makes it to Ruth’s door before being startled by a dog and once again turning back. At a party in town, while Harry and Janice are at a strip club with their friends, a still pregnant Pru takes a fall and breaks her arm, to the concern of everyone. She soon after gives birth to a healthy baby girl.
In the meantime, Harry invests in gold Krugerrands and eventually sells them on for silver coins, making a good profit. He and Janice decide to finally move out of Bessie’s house and get their own, a conversation that proves difficult.
Harry and Janice go on a trip to the Caribbean with their country club friends, and have a great time. On the first evening, someone suggests the three couples wife-swap, spending each night with a different person. Everyone agrees, and Harry is chosen by Thelma, who is not his first choice but who secretly has a thing for him. Disappointed, he tells himself he will have a chance to sleep with the other woman another night, and the two enjoy a night of passion. In the morning, Harry and Janice are told they need to hurry home: Nelson has run away.
Back home, Harry drives down to Galilee again and this time gathers the courage to speak to Ruth. She promises him the girl she met was not his daughter, and that she had an abortion when he left her. The girl is her daughter from a subsequent happy marriage, and she is disgusted at Harry’s insinuation that she could be hers.
On SuperBowl Sunday, Bessie, Pru, and the baby come over to Harry and Janice’s new house. The pair receives a postcard from Nelson in Kent State, saying he has re-enrolled and asking for money for the semester. Melanie is with him, and Pru seems to accept this state of affairs for now. As Bessie is getting the tour, Pru finds Harry and places the baby girl on his lap. Having lost both the daughters he could have had, Harry takes joy from this new granddaughter that life has given him.Rabbit is Rich
is considered one of the best installments in the Rabbit series, having won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1982. It was the first book in series to win the award, and the subsequent Rabbit at Rest
took it in 1990. Updike also released a novella called Rabbit, Remembered in 2001, which follows Nelson after the death of his father.