Although I have read Rabbit, Run at least four times, I have read the other Rabbit books by John Updike only once. While I thought Rabbit is Rich was worth reading, the other two were tepid and lackluster, period pieces at best that existed to show Rabbit Angstrom as a "representative" American of his time and place and to document American culture at the turn of each decade from 1960 to 1990. Rabbit is Rich shared these characteristics as well, although in this book Updike was able to mirror Rabbit's own predicament in Rabbit, Run in the situation in which Rabbit's son, Nelson, finds himself, which gives it a structural and thematic association with the first novel that allows it to be a plausible continuation of that novel rather than just another installment in a loosely-jointed chronicle of the life of a guy in Pennsylvania.
To a limited extent, Rabbit, Run itself is a "documentary" novel that gives us a portrait of small-town life (we sometimes forget that the Rabbit novels are set not in Brewer, the modestly sized city the characters often enough visit, but in Mt. Judge, which really doesn't take on the attributes of suburbia until later in the series) circa 1960. But much of its documentary value is retrospective, illuminated by the additional light cast by the subsequent novels in the series. It has a role in this series due only to the fact that Updike chose to write another novel featuring Rabbit Angstrom ten years later, its social realism partly an artifact of the later creation and our perception of "the Rabbit books" as a unified set. Further, I don't think that documentary realism was really Updike's primary ambition in Rabbit, Run, although it was and is a secondary effect of his anchoring of the story in a fictionalized version of his hometown and of his commitment to specificity and detail.
I recently re-read both Rabbit, Run and Rabbit is Rich, and my perception that Rabbit, Run is a qualitatively different kind of novel was only reinforced. Of the four books, it is by far the slimmest, and its relative brevity and more concentrated focus reflects its different purpose: it is more nearly pure narrative, almost allegorical, a fable about disillusion edging into desperation. Its present-tense narration gives it an immediacy that still seems immediate, while the same strategy in the other, more bloated novels seems increasingly perfunctory (although perhaps this impression is heightened because the present-tense strategy itself eventually came to seem somewhat unexceptional--an outcome made possible by Updike's prominent use of the strategy in Rabbit, Run). Rabbit, Run is a novel centered on its protagonist's existential crisis, the dramatization of which is its dominant concern.
Rabbit is Rich is, like its now forty-something protagonist, much less frenetic, more leisurely paced than Rabbit Run but also somewhat more expansive in the account it provides both of Rabbit's domestic life (now that he's settled into one) and of Brewer and Mt. Judge, the latter of which has now truly become an upwardly mobile suburb that provides Rabbit and his wife the comforts they enjoy due to the circumstances indicated in the novel's title. Rabbit has outgrown his existential crisis, although his son Nelson is depicted as just entering into his. Rabbit is Rich lacks the intensity and the structural economy of Rabbit is Rich, making it a less urgent, more diffuse reading experience, but it also offers a breadth of detail and observation not to be found so much in the first novel.
Both Rabbit Redux and Rabbit is Rich seem clearly enough designed to transform the approach taken in Rabbit, Run into a strategy by which the story of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom becomes not just the story of an isolated American trying to figure out what he wants but a story about the social development of America in the second half of the twentieth century. Rabbit, Run takes on "social" implications if we regard it as the story of a high school athlete confronting the world after stardom and finding ordinary life unsatisfying, but neither the American preoccupation with athletic success nor the effects of fame and glory could really be said to be the focus of the novel's attention. And while very little reference is made to current events or objects of popular culture in Rabbit, Run, Rabbit is Rich is saturated with such references, the chronicle of a few months in the life of the Angstrom family unfolding within the cultural currents of such developments as the ongoing energy crisis and the taking of the hostages in Iran. This "embedding" of narrative in social context does provide some parallel to the circumstances of Rabbit's life--he seems himself to be experiencing an energy crisis of sorts--but for the most part it seems designed to add to the novel some "texture" that Rabbit, Run doesn't need.
I think that this strategy in Rabbit is Rich mostly works--it's still a pretty good book that manages to make Harry Angstrom a more sympathetic figure than he is in either Rabbit, Run or Rabbit Redux but doesn't sentimentalize him in the process. Given that Updike portrays Harry in this novel as someone who has become comfortable with his place in the world--certainly much more comfortable than in the previous two novels--it is probably necessary for him to provide a fuller portrait of that larger world as well. Nelson, who comes off as at least as obnoxious as Rabbit himself was in the first novel, introduces some of the tension that animated Rabbit, Run through his own discomfort with the world in which he has been placed and through his increasingly brittle relationship with his father. (That Rabbit is impatient with his son, to the point it seems he really doesn't like him, perhaps suggests that Rabbit perceives Nelson as a little too close to the immature young man he once was.) But, although I can imagine wanting to read Rabbit, Run a fifth time some years hence, I don't think I'll ever want to pick up Rabbit is Rich again. It has reminded me of the era in which it is set, but in the future if I want to be so reminded, I'll consult history books.