Harry's troubles are still multiplying like rabbits

Rabbit may be dead, but that's no rest for his creator, John Updike, Pulitzer Prize winner redux. Even after four rich novels about Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, he still writes. Ah, writes. Writes.

Coming at the end of a collection of 12 short stories, this sequel, "Rabbit Remembered," isn't in the same league as that quartet which dissected middle-class America with such devastating precision. But for the millions of readers who followed Rabbit's disturbing life, this novella is an engaging look at the wake he left behind.

It turns out Rabbit had a daughter by the woman he lived with during the three months he abandoned his wife and children in "Rabbit, Run" (1960). Now 39 years old, Annabelle appears at his widow's door and announces her existence.

Janice, Rabbit's long-suffering wife, isn't thrilled. She's moved on since her husband's lonely death in "Rabbit at Rest" (1990). She's married to Ronnie Harrison now, Rabbit's old high-school rival. He's boorish but predictable, reliable in a way her first husband never was. With her divorced son still living at home, she has no interest in revisiting another of Rabbit's offenses.

But for her son, Nelson, this new half sister means something entirely different. Estranged from his own wife and children, he sees Annabelle as someone to help and take care of.

What a long way this famously dysfunctional family has come! Rabbit was "narcissistically impaired." Janice accidentally drowned their infant daughter in a fit of drunken depression.

But now, a generation later, Rabbit's children are cautious, hard-working people, determined not to hurt anyone. Nelson has none of his father's hotshot charm, nor the shallow spirituality that Rabbit used to maintain his own sense of innocence and entitlement.

Nelson and Annabelle are amused to discover they both work as caregivers for society's most helpless members, people their father would have found frightening or depressing.

All the usual Updike qualities are here: the contemporary references that make his Rabbit novels historical markers to the 20th century; the sexual detail that seems more pathological than erotic; the witty narrative voice that skewers modern life perfectly.

And yet there's something more minor about this sequel than just its length (182 pages). Nelson's loneliness is tenderly explored, particularly his stilted efforts to be a good dad, but the other characters remain rather flat.

And too soon after a brutal Thanksgiving dinner that derails Nelson's plans to integrate Annabelle into the family, the story wraps up like a Shakespearean comedy - happy new marriages all around. This seems a bit forced from the master of regret, but perhaps after running through so much heartache, the Angstroms deserve a little gladness.

The 12 stories that precede "Rabbit Remembered" are a mixed bag. Some, like the two-page "Oliver's Evolution," are cute experiments. Others, like "The Woman Who Got Away," cover ground Updike has traversed so much before about the emptiness of sexual promiscuity. He does this well, but it's starting to sound repetitious. Similarly, another story about Henry Bech, his literary alter ego, is dull.

The best stories involve a man looking back at his parents. In "My Father on the Verge of Disgrace," the narrator recalls his overgenerous dad, a school teacher who played fast and loose with the ticket money from high school football games. It's a story that captures a son's mixture of pride and embarrassment.

In "The Cats," the narrator must dispose of a farm his mother left, along with dozens of feral felines. He struggles between the desire to return home and the urge to be rid of its entanglements.

The emotional depth and grace in these witty stories make them among Updike's best.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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