Rabbit, Run, by John Updike

Dec 3, 2009

This month’s classics reading group took advantage of John Updike’s recent demise to read his most famous, or notorious, novel, “Rabbit, Run”, which is now upon its 50th anniversary of publication. This is a little bit of a departure for us, since we don’t often get to read American stories that take place within the lifespans of most of the membership. And this book may underscore why, what Updike provides is a very sharply drawn, no holds barred depiction of middle class suburban life, where everyone is mostly unhappy with everyone else, often for reasons they only vaguely understand. The main character, Harry Rabbit Angstrom, is a former high school basketball star now married 20-something saddled with a wife who is borderline alcoholic and pregnant with their second child. He gets in his car one evening to pick up his 3 year old, and on a whim decides to run away, driving most of the night while sorting out the reasons behind this impulse that makes him want to abandon his current life.

But he doesn’t really sort them out, and goes back, not to his own house but to his former basketball coach, looking for some wisdom and guidance. The coach, Trothero, instead lines him up with a prostitute, for whom Harry immediately establishes a co-dependency. At this point the reader gets the sense that Harry is not the most likeable character, not because he has any criminal or violent tendencies, but because he is so abhorrent of responsibility, even though the alternatives he’s pursuing aren’t any better and certainly not thought through. He meets up with his minister, Eccles, who tries to steer him back to his wife, but Harry turns out to be a tougher case than the minister was expecting. Only the impending birth of his daughter spurs Harry to a reconciliation, but what happens after that only makes matters worse, and even at the very end Harry is seen to be running away, seemingly having learned nothing from the experiences in the book.

Harry at one point makes the provocative comment, “Once you’ve been first rate at something, it’s hard to settle for second rate.” You can see his point, I suppose. Some of the group thought Harry would seem like a nice guy to talk to once in a while but not somebody you could really stay friends with. In fact during the course of the book you really don’t hear about any friends, even though he’s lived there his entire life. So it was an interesting exercise for the author to paint such a compelling portrait of a character who is unlikeable not because he’s done anything really awful, but because he can’t commit to doing much of anything at all. In a way it echoes your typical hero in a Russian novel.

Updike’s prose is in present tense, mostly from Harry’s point of view, drawing interesting linguistic juxtapositions and occasionally lapsing into brief stream of consciousness, but always very readable and understandable. It also draws an interesting parallel with Kit in last month’s selection, Paul Bowles’ “The Sheltering Sky”, who for different reasons is also running away from her past without any sense of what to do in its place. Rabbit Run is not a book you’d want to read a lot, or turn to for inspiration or comfort by any means, but Updike puts forth a believable, richly detailed story that is well worth reading.

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