Licks of Love

By John Updike

We thought he was gone. When we last saw Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom he was lying in a hospital bed in Florida, his heart having exploded while driving hard for the hoop in a pick-up game of one-on-one. Rabbit at Rest was the name of the book, and the title meant what it said.

Or so it seemed.

Licks of Love is a collection of short stories and a novella, “Rabbit Remembered.”

The Rabbit novels (Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1990)) were an American chronicle, a series of check-ups run every ten years on the national soul. Now, with the passing of another decade (not to mention the millennium), Updike revisits the lives of those touched by his most enduring and endearing fictional creation.

The results are hard to judge. To say that “Rabbit Remembered” isn’t as strong as the previous installments in the Rabbit saga may be missing the point. Rabbit was Updike’s embodiment of Shaw’s Life Force: a genial virus of libido with an almost religious dedication to the principles of propagation and pleasure. Absent Rabbit’s amoral yet weirdly spiritual urges, his mid-town Pennsylvania world is a poorer place.

We know how much has changed, for the worse, with the opening words: “Janice Harrison goes to the front door . . . ” It’s only a proper name, but what a falling off is there! Rabbit’s widow has gone and married the odious Ronnie Harrison, a satyr to Harry’s Hyperion if ever there was.

As things turn out, Janice Harrison is going to the front door because Harry’s illegitimate daughter is ringing the bell. The two have never met, and the resulting interview is awkward to say the least. For the rest of the novella Rabbit’s family tries to come to terms – not only with the unexpected appearance of Annabelle, but with all of the physical and emotional fruit of Rabbit’s unorthodox past.

At their best the Rabbit novels had a kind of energy and abundance that is mostly missing here. What Rabbit was all about was the need to run, to escape, to push the narrow limits of his conventional, middle-class life. Unfortunately, nobody he has left behind (with the possible exception of his absent granddaughter) feels the same way. “Rabbit Remembered” is all about settling down, drawing together, strengthening old emotional ties and forging new ones. A sentimental nesting impulse has taken over. Rabbitism has been exorcized.

And yet, compared to the dull generations pressing forward into the 21st century, his ghost seems so alive.

Review first published January 13, 2001.


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