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Friday, April 09, 2010

Rabbit, Run

In my remembrance of novelist John Updike, I mentioned that his greatest work, the tetralogy concerning Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, I had read only the last two of the four books. I have now added the first book of the series, as it marks the fiftieth anniversary of publication this year. Somewhere along the line I purchased a second-hand copy of a yellowing, crumbling paperback (I noticed that it was published in the U.K.) and made my way through it, experiencing mixed thoughts.

Rabbit Is Rich is one of the best books I have read, and Rabbit at Rest was also very good. The first book is a different experience. I'm sure Updike had no intention of spending the next thirty years chronicling the life of his hero, a man who never shakes his high-school days as a basketball hero, and perpetually runs from his problems. Reading this book fifty years later, one has to adjust mentally back to 1960, as this book, for all its gifts, is not timeless.

Reading these books out of order creates interesting effects. Updike killed Rabbit off while playing a pickup game of basketball with teenagers, and I see now the irony of that, as Rabbit, Run begins with a 26-year-old Rabbit stopping to watch and then participate in a pickup game of basketball. He's living in his home town, on the outskirts of a mid-size Pennsylvania city (presumably something like Reading) and has a nothing job demonstrating kitchen gadgets. He's married to Janice, with a small son and another child on the way. When he comes home and finds Janice drunk and mindlessly watching TV, he tells her he's going out for cigarettes and runs.

What follows is the strongest part of the book, Rabbit's odyssey as he drives. He thinks he'll go south to Florida, but only gets as far as West Virginia before circling back. But along the way we get a terrific impression of 1959 America. Over the course of the tetralogy, Updike used his hero's story as a way into the culture of his country, and here is no different, as we get the names of the songs on the radio, the movies in the theaters, the sights and sounds of diners and gas stations.

Rabbit bunks with his basketball coach for a night, and ends up at having dinner with him and two women at a Chinese restaurant. He's vaguely attracted to one of them, Ruth, and follows her home. It turns out she's sort of a prostitute, and for fifteen dollars he spends the night with her, although she's not particularly crazy about him. We then get, for the cusp of the sixties, a fairly explicit sex scene, though in comparison to what Updike would later write it's pretty tame. But we do get a hint of Updike's use of bodily fluids in his prose, such as the magnificent sentence: "And on a tide of alcohol and stirred semen, he steps forward, in a kind of swoon."

Rabbit and Ruth play house for a few months, though Janice's family's minister tries to get husband and wife back together (Updike would specialize in the characters of ministers). When Janice goes into labor he returns to her (though not before flirting with the minister's wife) but a tragedy will once again change things, and the book ends memorably with Rabbit running, of course.

Reading this book for the first time in 2010 presents certain problems. Rabbit is a man rooted in his time, way before feminism. Any self-respecting woman would read this book with clenched fists, wondering why any woman would give him a second chance. Updike's treatment of women is not exactly enlightened, particularly in the character of Ruth, the bovine, sometime hooker who doesn't like Rabbit but gets attached to him anyway. And the dialogue doesn't seem right--stilted almost, as if the characters were aware that someone were listening to them.

For anyone interested in American literature of the latter half of the twentieth century, the Rabbit books are essential, and they are also interesting cultural artifacts chronicling the white middle-class male. But be warned that reading this first volume can be an uncomfortable experience.

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