“Rabbit Redux,” I think, is the perfect “generational conflict” novel, a book that pits a blue-collar, gritty, salt-of-the-Earth American man in his late 30s (a bigot, also, to be precise), against the social upheaval of the late 1960s. Rabbit, a decade older since we last saw him in “Rabbit, Run” (which I found to be boring and dull), now has to contend with the blossoming of the space program (and, as the book opens, man is landing on the moon), the blossoming of the idea of “free love,” and the rise of the black power movement.
The first Rabbit Angstrom novel did not work, I think, because Rabbit really had no antagonist. Updike writes about a discontented working-class white man who leaves his wife. Yawn. Maybe that was BIG NEWS at one point, but I really didn’t see the conflict as being very involving. “Rabbit Redux,” though, paints Angstrom as a much more tragic figure. The world is changing, shifting beneath his feet, and somehow he is completely caught up within those changes and forced to confront his unaccomplished life.
First, his wife leaves him for a successful immigrant man who disagrees with all of Rabbit’s pro-American, pro-Vietnam-War ideas and ideals. Then, he takes in a runaway girl who he tries to love, but who has vastly different ideas about love than he does. Then, he also takes in a Negro named Skeeter, a sort of Malcolm X figure who actually thinks he is the Second Coming, and who forces Rabbit to confront his prejudices, and the bigotry of his upbringing, and the town around him.
In all, it’s a fascinating book because there are so many rich generational conflicts. We’re no longer just dealing with two white people in their late 20s and early 30s who can’t get along; we’re delving into a rich social novel where many different age groups and social classes are thrust together and forced to confront one another. Brilliant stuff. It dragged a bit, at times (toward the end, especially, when Rabbit’s sister comes to town), but it belongs with Irving’s “A Prayer For Owen Meany” as a prototypical generational novel for the Baby Boomers (even if Rabbit Angstrom himself is just a Baby Boomer’s parent).