Rabbit, Run by John Updike
Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom pops out to get some cigarettes, but on a selfish whim he abandons his pregnant wife and their son. Updike follows the shirker over the next several months as he conducts a shabby affair, sparking concern and fuelling gossip around the painfully typical American town of Brewer, Pennsylvania.
The ‘safety net’ of the family and community around Rabbit and Brewer is among the most engrossing features of this first of the Rabbit novels, published in 1960. There’s the pitiful figure of his erstwhile basketball coach and biggest fan Marty Tothero, the well-meaning meddler Reverend Eccles, kind old Mrs. Smith, and Rabbit’s own parents and in-laws. None of them are quite prepared to disavow Rabbit as a pariah in the way he expects, with most of them attempting in their own way to nudge him back towards his wife Janice, son Nelson and an unborn child.
Rabbit himself is impossible to like – he reminds us that he’s a self-absorbed lech every couple of pages. Even walking down a hospital corridor to meet his second child for the very first time, he’s distracted by the swing of a nurse’s haunches. His new squeeze Ruth is eventually revolted by his ‘touch of death’, but many, many readers are driven to toss Rabbit, Run across the room long before that – long before he makes his very worst decisions. Unfortunately, they’ll miss the way Rabbit animates all the supporting characters as he muddles through life.
The other thing that makes this slowly plotted novel sing is its intensely observant voice. It revels in a kind of hyper-detail, zooming in on everyday objects, subtle body language, and rare bursts of cataclysmic action with a kind of even, careful interest in it all – the ‘rusty tears’ of a hot tap in a grotty toilet, a gas station window ‘stained green by stacked cans of liquid wax’, the way Ruth reads paperbacks without cracking the spine. And Lucy Eccles’ raging eyes with ‘the little speckled section of her green irises like torn tissue-paper around the black pupil-dots’.
Many writers reach for the present tense to give their work an immediacy, only to end up with a flat screenplay texture to much of their prose. Updike, who must have popularised (if not pioneered) this stylistic choice, is the absolute master of it. It allows him to dart between moment and memory, the warp and weft of Rabbit’s chaotic life, in sustained interior monologues. So many of these impressive (occasionally confusing) passages serve to expose Rabbit’s slippery grip on reality and responsibility. He clings to his glory days as the high-school basketball star, defining his mid-20s against his footloose former self, so it never takes much for him end up adrift on memory or lost in lust.
“I once did something right. I played first-rate basketball. I really did. And after you’re first-rate at something, no matter what, it kind of takes the kick out of being second-rate.”
I’ve tried a couple of Updike’s later novels before now, but Angstrom has always been a great gap in my reading. I’m looking forward to diving into the sequels, each of them supposedly decade-defining, soon.