The Coup | Rabbit Is Rich | The Witches of Eastwick
This third volume in Library of America’s five-volume edition of John Updike’s selected novels brings together one of his great masterpieces, Rabbit Is Rich, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and two wickedly funny novels that capture the changed realms of sex, politics, and family in the aftermath of the 1960s.
In 1978, Updike embarked on a surprising departure with The Coup, a riotous novel set in sub-Saharan Africa, “a lengthy monologue,” as an admiring Joyce Carol Oates observed, “that really is a coup of sorts.” In the landlocked nation of Kush, a former French colony suffering a punishing drought, the American-educated Colonel Hakim Félix Ellelloû deposes the country’s monarch and installs himself as leader. Refracted through the dictator’s fevered narration, the story that unfolds is a biting satire of the inescapable culture of the country Ellelloû both loves and loathes: “America, that fountainhead of obscenity and glut.”
Returning to familiar ground in Rabbit Is Rich (1981), Updike continued the saga of Rabbit Angstrom, his most indelible character and one of the indispensable creations of postwar American literature. Harry Angstrom is now forty-six, coping with middle age and the banalities of modest affluence. With the late-sixties turbulence of Rabbit Redux long behind him, Harry has reunited with his wife and long-absent son and finds himself comfortably settled as the head of a Pennsylvania Toyota dealership where, due to the shock of the energy crisis and the nation’s new appetite for fuel-efficient cars, business is booming. And yet the novel conveys a palpable feeling that “the great American ride is ending.”
In The Witches of Eastwick (1984), the uproarious novel that became a popular 1987 film, Updike imagined a small New England town possessed by magic—as practiced by the female trio at its center who, freed from the burdens of their marriages, make common cause and unleash their whimsical witchcraft on Eastwick’s narrow-minded townspeople. The arrival of the mysterious stranger Darryl Van Horne, a cranky eccentric with estimable supernatural powers of his own, leads to complications involving sex, betrayal, jealousy, and a shocking act of revenge. Written in Updike’s characteristically dazzling prose, the novel was, he claimed, “a deliberate attempt to broaden my palette, and write about women not merely with sympathy but something like gusto, energy, and fun, even a little mischief.”
Christopher Carduff, editor, is Books Editor of The Wall Street Journal. He is the editor of John Updike’s posthumous collections Higher Gossip (essays and criticism), Always Looking (writings on art), and Selected Poems, and is also the editor of the Library of America editions of William Maxwell and John Updike.