John Updike (1932-2009)
Monday, April 6, 2009
John Updike (1932-2009)
Mr. Updike left us earlier this year and his death spurred me to jump into some of his work. Rabbit, Run is the first of the five part Rabbit series. What I found was perfect 1960 realism. The prose is descriptive without being flashy. The characters are painfully real. There are no good guys and bad guys, just people making mistakes and existing with their flaws in flawed world. Updike's use of the present tense is startling to the ear in a way that makes it difficult for the reader to understand how they are being startled.
Rabbit Angstrom is a former HS basketball star. He is drearily trudging home when he runs across a playground game and joins in, stroking a few jumpers before going back to his pregnant wife, Janice, and their son Nelson. The game is a bit awkward, a place where he can't return. He's only 26, but the glory he experienced in high school is long gone. His wife is pregnant and an alcoholic. His job, selling kitchen gadgets, isn't much fun. So one day he ditches his wife and drives away. He vaguely wants to head to the southern coast, but he barely gets out of Pennsylvania before turning around. He's the antithesis of the 1950s roadtrip character who roams the countryside, his roots are too strong.
He goes to the only man who's lead him to his peak, his high school coach. Tothero, with vague hopes that the old man will guide him. Well, he guides him right into a date at a Chinese restaurant with a couple of prostitutes. He shacks up with Ruth, a wise, but lovelorn woman who makes love with Rabbit, but only slowly falls in love with him. They carry on a three month affair that again leads Rabbit nowhere because of his marriage and his jealousy about Ruth's former employment.
Rabbit returns to his wife for the birth of their baby, and for a fleeting night feels the connection he felt with her during their sweetheart days. This feeling of being good again lasts until Janice returns home from the hospital. Rabbit's selfish desire for sex, perhaps an instinct to abuse Janice for her shortcomings (or his shortcomings) leads to Janice understandably rejecting him and his abandoning the family yet again. During Rabbit's absence Janice gets drunk and accidently drowns their baby girl. This leads to the final segment of the book.
Rabbit makes a scene at the funeral, insisting that the baby's death was not his fault. Once again he runs away, right to Ruth. Ruth initially rejects Rabbit, but eventually admits him and reveals that she's pregnant. As the book ends he heads out to grab some food.
Rabbit could never find the comfort he found on the basketball court. He is constantly running but never really gets anywhere, in fact he manages to tie himself to Brewer, PA more completely. Religion is an important part of Rabbit, Run and this realm provides the two most interesting characters in the novel. The Eccleses are a reverend and his wife. Rev. Eccles is charged with getting Rabbit and Janice back together and seems to fall in love with Rabbit. It might not be romantic love (it might be) but Eccles becomes more committed to Eccles than his real family. His wife, Lucy, is my favorite character. She's disgusted by the time Eccles spends on other people's problems when it's quite obvious that the Eccles family has big problems itself. There is a strange energy that exists between Lucy and Rabbit. He feels a sense of control over her, and I don't know if she likes it, or even knows about his feelings, but she seems receptive to his advances. At one point she says he's full of life (contrast that to Ruth saying he spreads death). Lucy is also nonreligious, very interesting for a minister's wife.
Rating 7.5/10: I couldn't quite go 8. I might be too used to reading books that don't make you work so hard. Rabbit, Run requires a lot from the reader. The prose is jarring, the characters aren't really that likable and everything is tragically real. I bet if I read it again in ten years I'd like it even more.