Readers who have missed John Updike's chronically imperfect Harry Angstrom since his demise in Rabbit at Rest have cause to celebrate, because Rabbit is back. Well, sort of. The second half of Updike's new short story collection, Licks of Love, is a novella, Rabbit Remembered, which resurrects Harry in spirit if not in his perpetually libidinous flesh. Updike has written a Rabbit novel every 10 years or so since the first in 1960, with the story progressing along the same time line. With Rabbit Remembered it is now 10 years after Harry's death. His long-suffering wife Janice has married his friend and rival Ronnie Harrison. Son Nelson, who lost the family Toyota dealership and his marriage to a cocaine habit, lives with his mother and stepfather and has become a painfully sincere, slightly sanctimonious therapist.
Enter Annabelle Byer, who says she is Harry's daughter from the affair he had with Ruth Leonard 40 years before. Though she doesn't doubt the truth in the girl's claim, Janice wants nothing less than to stir up the memories of that painful past. Nelson, however, is taken with the idea that he has a sister (someone to replace the baby girl his mother accidentally drowned perhaps? Or at least a tangible link to the father for whom he had such a tentative love.) He tries to bring Annabelle into the family, with predictably uneasy results. A Thanksgiving dinner ends with insults and tears, prompting Nelson to move out of the family home. Yes, even dead, Rabbit manages to stir things up.
There are also a dozen short stories in Licks of Love, most of them the kind of gems that show why Updike is one of the masters of this form. As has always been the case in his short fiction, the men at the center of many of these stories seem to share elements of Updike's own life his Pennsylvania childhood, the suburban middle class experience in America during the 1960s and '70s.
There has always been more than a whiff of nostalgia in Updike's short fiction, and this seems to be even more true as the writer ages. Many of the stories are fond reconsiderations of flawed mothers and fathers, or memories of youth triggered by high school reunions or chance encounters with lovers from the past. Not surprisingly, all are beautifully etched with the elegance and intimacy we've come to expect from one of our finest writers. Robert Weibezahl is a writer who lives in California.