Book of a lifetime: Rabbit at Rest, By John Updike


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The Independent Culture

My choice is almost entirely self-serving. I have just looked, and see that I have 23 books by John Updike. In 2006, he suggested me to write the foreword (it ended up as an afterword) for the new Penguin edition of Rabbit at Rest. So in a sense I am trying to attach myself to the great man's memory by choosing it as my Book of a Lifetime.

Other books which were highly influential – a different thing from literary favourites – were Peter Abrahams's Mine Boy and Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. In their very different ways, these two books opened my eyes at a very young age to what was going on in South Africa. I was about 17 when I first read anything by Updike, Pigeon Feathers. I was entranced. Although there are many books which are more obviously striking and even ground-breaking, Updike's novels - to use his own phrase – "take the ordinary and give it is beautiful due". He also said that he had no instinct for social criticism.

Rabbit at Rest is a wonderful book, honest, detailed, perceptive and moving. Although quietly charming and without any symptoms of Bohemia, Updike was ruthlessly forensic with his characters. His description of Rabbit's wayward son, Nelson, is devastating: in contrast to the free pass to life that Rabbit grants himself – he is, in his reckoning, tall, athletic, open and attractive, with a full head of hair - his son is small, balding and furtive with a drug habit and – worse – a trite kind of philophy, confidently uttered. How accurately Updike captures the new banality.

Updike wrote: "Rabbit Angstrom was for me a way in – a ticket to the America all around me." And this, I think, is his beautiful legacy: that, for all his profligacy, he was always a generous and observant chronicler of America and the ordinary life, ever mindful of his own background in small-town Pennsylvania.

I think that Rabbit at Rest may be the finest America novel of the late 20th century. And it has my name on it, in very small print, on the Penguin editon, which is a source of pride to me.

Justin Cartwright's new novel is 'Lion Heart' (Bloomsbury)