Rabbit, Run by John Updike


It is more than 30 years since I first read this book, yet I still remember the feelings, the location of where and when I read it. Rabbit, Run was quite a revelation to readers in those days. One of the first non-pornographic books to use the F-word, the C-word, and to give detailed descriptions of sex; not just the details, but brought it down to earth, into practical realms. It was not the “swearing” that made Rabbit, Run popular, it was the descriptive passages, the conflict, the foolish actions of the characters that caught our attention. It is not a story of people from Wall St, the FBI, or Harvard. It is a story of ordinary people — just like those who live in your street. You might not like them, but they are real people.

The story is set in 1959 in Pennsylvania. The protagonist, “Rabbit” Harry Angstrom, is not particularly likeable, nor is his wife Janice. This is not a story about heroes, but about defective humans. In the first few pages we find Janice, pregnant, sitting at home watching The Mickey Mouse Club, drinking, smoking, with the house in a state of disorder.

Their toddler, Nelson, is being minded by Rabbit’s mother, while their car was left outside his mother-in-law’s house. Rabbit, sent to pick up Nelson and the car, decides on the spot that his son is better off living with the boy’s grandmother. He suddenly gets the idea that he should drive a thousand miles South, leaving his problems behind, and sit on a beach instead of going to work. So he sets off driving South, makes a mess of this — confused by maps, road signs, and his own sense of direction, he takes a wrong turn, and discovers he is travelling back the way he had come. Without any plans, he finds he is barely out of the state after driving most of the night. Disappointed that he is not half-way to Florida, he decides to return to his own town, but not to his old life.

He abandons his wife and child, his job as a MagiPeel Peeler demonstrator in department stores, his former life; all of which he was dissatisfied with, and not without reason. Rabbit was a basketball star at high-school, he was well-known, almost famous in his town, but after school he found that his former days of glory were of no consequence in the world of business. He drifts from job to job, while his wife Janice, pregnant with their second child, watches TV, smoking and drinking, while their small apartment falls into chaos.

The story is told with irony, the characters clashing, arguing, niggling at each other. They are immature, acting impulsively, saying and doing the first thing that enters their minds. Yet for all his foolishness, his absurd ideas, his superficiality, Rabbit Angstrom is likeable, amusing, and interesting — like an exuberant teenager.

He settles in with his ex-prostitute girlfriend, and has meetings with the local Reverend who tries to guide him back to his home and wife. There is discussion about God and what God wants from them, but it is full of playfulness and irony. The Reverend meets another preacher who reprimands him for trying to solve the problems of his parishioners. This causes the Reverend to have a crisis of faith — is he doing God’s will, or trying to be a social worker?

Towards the end of the novel there is a cataclysmic event, which comes as suddenly as an unexpected slap across the face. It changes all their circumstances, and reappears in each of the later Rabbit books.

The novel centres on Rabbit and how he makes a mess of his life by failing to make decisions, pushed this way and that by external forces, rudderless. His parents and in-laws see his failings, along with his pregnant girlfriend who despises his emotional drifting, as well as his lack of commitment to anything. She knows he is not going to change, and he doesn’t. The story probes deep into all the characters; the descriptions are detailed and beautifully written, presenting you with a vivid picture of events.

The novel, while in third person, takes the point of view of various characters — for example the Revered Eccles — so that you see through his eyes, feel what he feels, hear his thoughts. The writing gives you the feeling of being inside the character’s heads, like stream-of-consciousness with punctuation.

Rabbit is not a hero, not someone to emulate, but we can learn what not to do by watching his life fall apart because of his lack of consistency, his juvenile way of looking at the world, marred somewhat by his earlier life as a high-school basketball star.

The reading public were enthusiastic about the Rabbit books, always asking Updike to write more Rabbit novels. He said he did not particularly like Rabbit, but the public did. Updike, wrote a new Rabbit book every ten years, and in each one we find Rabbit trying to mature, but not making huge progress — just getting older.

While Rabbit, Run is an excellent book — and where you should start — there are two more that eclipse it: Rabbit is Rich, and the best of all of them: Rabbit at Rest, a novel that encapsulates America at the end of the 20th Century.

Finally there is a postscript book, Rabbit Remembered, which reminded me of a great sportsman who retired at his peak, only to attempt a come-back ten years later.

John Updike was a prolific writer: he wrote 22 novels, 13 collections of short stories, 8 books of poetry, 10 books of non-fiction (mostly literary criticism), 5 children’s books, and even a play. But for the public, it was always the four Rabbit books that his readers loved best of all.

Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest both won Pulitzer Prizes for John Updike.

What is your  favorite Rabbit book? Have you read all of them?

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