I’ve been making good progress this year on reading some of the books that have been on my TBR list for years. With John Updike’s death this January, I decided it was finally time to read my first of his novels, the much-beloved, critically-acclaimed, widely-read Rabbit, Run.
Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom inhabits small-town, lower-middle-class New England, near Philadelphia. He was a basketball star in high school, fleet of foot and sure of hand, but he married young, when his wife Janice was already pregnant with their son Nelson, and now she’s heavily pregnant again, dazed and clumsy. They’re barely making ends meet on his job demonstrating and selling the MagiPeeler vegetable peeler. And one day, Rabbit runs. He’s not sure where he’s going, or what he wants, but he’s filled with an undefinable sense that there is more out there for him if he will only take it.
He doesn’t get far. A sense of strangeness, foreignness brings him back to the things he knows. But he refuses to return to his wife and family, and in one blundering, oddly blind move after another, Rabbit finds new friends: his former basketball coach Tothero; Eccles, the Episcopal minister who wants to convert him, and Ruth, the promiscuous girl he wants to pin down. In the end, Rabbit’s sense of the larger life he might have meets both the banality and the sudden tragedy of the life he really does have, and he must decide. The ambiguity, the sigh of relief, of the famous, lovely ending expresses the sense of the whole book: “…he runs. Ah: runs. Runs.”
I was surprised at how little I liked this book. Usually, when a book is as beautifully written as this one is, I’ll love it for that alone. I know, too, that this book struck a chord with a whole generation of readers, articulating their feelings about the lives they were leading. Since I read to understand other people better — to lead lives, in a way, that I will never lead otherwise — I felt almost guilty for not enjoying Rabbit, Run more than I did.
But I didn’t. I don’t know whether I’m too old for this novel, or too female, or perhaps both, but I simply had no sympathy for Rabbit Angstrom (or anyone else in the book, to be perfectly honest, except the two-year-old.) I think I was supposed to sympathize with his feeling of being trapped, his potential, his essentially sweet nature that kept getting snagged on an uncongenial environment. In fact I kept hissing with annoyance, wishing he would decide what he wanted and stop jerking his family and mistress around. The book is full of an angular spirituality, a yearning for God and basketball and oddly explicit sex. While none of these are necessarily bad things to yearn for, I had a strong sense that the yearning was masculine posturing and not genuine emotion. It seemed to me that Updike was a master craftsman working with false, fraudulent materials.
All of that said, I am not sorry I read the book. I would even recommend it — I think it’s probably worth reading for its generational portrait alone. It has moments of insight, and, as I said, it’s beautifully written. I’ve heard people call it squalid or sordid before, and those are definitely not the adjectives I’d choose. Updike is a talented writer — just not for everyone.