It is a glorious thing, this repackage. Beyond wow. I never knew Updike very well, his writing was always something off in the distance, on a road I never traveled. Like John Cheever, I didn’t discover either writer until I was in my 40’s.

Starting with Rabbit Run, you will instantly recognize yourself in Harry, and his woes aren’t new — infidelity, tragedies he endures or inflicts. The James Caan movie adaptation of Rabbit Run is kicking around out there, and it would have been great to see Caan play Harry for all four books. It is surprising that no one really cares enough about these books to make them into movies. Harry leaves his wife and son at the start, which left me wondering where it was going, but he comes back. Harry is obsessed with getting laid, not uncommon in a marriage, but Updike digs into Harry for a long time, examining his former basketball career, (redone by Franzen in Freedom, if anyone other than me and Kakutani were paying attention). The opening moments of this classic remind me what it’s like to catch raindrops, it’s everywhere all at once. Harry goes on through up and downs, crisis of faith, spiritual bankruptcy and changing of the country in pre-Eisenhower America. I love watching the scenery evolve from book to book, how the world around Harry changes and he never does. It’s also a husband and wife book, and a story about a jock grown up who is still dining out on his fading star power. I suppose you should have nothing but unwavering respect for Updike’s talents in this book, but in the next three he really takes Harry out on the town. Of course, to start anywhere but here would be ridiculous.

Rabbit Redux takes some getting used to, as Harry latches on to a young woman that only seems capable of one thing, bringing tragedy into Harry’s life. She has a radical in tow, and the preachy tone of this novel is almost unbearable, and Harry suffers right along side the reader. But it’s the late 60’s, and drugs are everywhere, race is prominent and dealt with evenly. Harry doesn’t know what to do with the family he has, so he leaves them, taking up with the young girl and the black radical. I’ve discussed this book, and the series, in several reviews on the blog, and this one book is the most mystifying of the four. I know that one of Updike’s children entered an interracial marriage, which for Updike must have fed his fiction. The clarity in which he delivers the almost preacher-like segments of this book, mainly about the inequalities of race in America, are biblical. I thought this story was raw and gritty, and Harry’s treatment of his own son nearly unreadable. He is so dismissive of his only child, and exposes him to things that are grotesque and wildly inappropriate. Harry loses a child in Rabbit Run, and it’s so terrifying, woefully painful, that Harry must have retreated away from his emotions. The suspense of this horror ripples through Harry’s life, and since we see the whole existence, it makes for a fully realized human being.

The series takes a wild turn with Rabbit is Rich, a kind of mellow-comfortable-fat Harry emerges from the 60’s to manage the family car dealership. Nelson, his broken down son arrives on the scene with the wild thoughts of making millions off his father by working at the dealership. If this were a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, I could see it getting made tomorrow. It’s so incredibly tragic what happens next, how Harry loses everything while never losing a step. Almost like he doesn’t care what happens to him, and his own self-resignation is palpable. I honestly can’t remember which book it lands in, but his illegitimate daughter arrives one day to buy a car, and Harry fawns over her. He does his usual tongue wagging, and it borders on repulsive. When he admits to wanting a certain flavor of ice cream based on a part of the female anatomy, I was floored. I can’t remember a book that turned my complexion bright red upon reading this part of Harry’s personal “tastes”. It’s a wild book, and might be the best of the three, but parts of the next book are so fantastic that it’s hard to pick.

The final act of this series is pure genius. In Rabbit at Rest, Harry and Janice, his long suffering wife, have taken a spot in Florida, and Updike introduces us to the 80’s and Harry’s middle age. He and a group of friends go off to spend time together and they all wife swap, which makes Harry giddy with delight. The woman Harry is paired wants anal sex with Harry, and when this is described, again, I found it almost appallingly brilliant. There is a great scene where Harry is snooping around this woman’s house during a cocktail party and finds some candid photographs of the host and her husband having sex, a stack of self made sexiness. Harry digs on it with Ellroy glee. Updike seems to eat up this kind of loose cannon Harry, and it’s in these moments that I knew Harry was doomed to die, and I knew it was coming, but I wanted him to stay alive so badly. I had watched him grow up from a just married asshole to a cheating husband, and finally to resigned old man. Nelson shows up here, and brings his wife Pru, who you have no reason to like. But Harry does, and what he decides to do next is beyond the pale, but shockingly absorbing. I’m sure there are countless intepretations, critical and grad student, that will make my point of view seem uneducated at best. But this series holds a place in my heart. With Updike gone, he took with him Harry Angstrom. These books are the only way to relive that guy, the time, a place, and some damn fine writing.