It's 1959, and Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom, one-time high school sports superstar, is going nowhere. At twenty-six he is trapped in a second-rate existence - stuck with a fragile, alcoholic wife, a house full of overflowing ashtrays and discarded glasses, a young son and a futile job.
With no way to fix things, he resolves to flee from his family and his home in Pennsylvania, beginning a thousand-mile journey that he hopes will free him from his mediocre life. Because, as he knows only too well, 'after you've been first-rate at something, no matter what, it kind of takes the kick out of being second-rate'.
John Updike (1932-2009) was born in Shillington, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Harvard College in 1954 and spent a year at Oxford, England, at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. From 1955 to 1957 he was a member of staff at The New Yorker.
Updike was the author of 21 novels as well as numerous collections of short stories, poems and criticism and is one of only three authors to win more than one Pulitzer Prize. His most famous works are the Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom series: Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990).
"It is sexy, in bad taste, violent and basically cynical. And good luck to it." (Angus Wilson, Observer)
"That special polish, that brilliance; Updike is among the best." (Malcolm Bradbury)
"Brilliant and poignant.... By his compassion, clarity of insight, and crystal-bright rose, [Updike] makes Rabbit's sorrow his and our own." (Washington Post)
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The description of Rabbit's drive from Pennsylvania to West Virginia.
It is difficult to believe that “Rabbit, Run” (1960) was only John Updike’s second novel. From the first sentence, he, very unusually in fiction, employs the present tense but such immediacy is combined with a narrative point of view in which Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom’s views are not necessarily Updike’s and Updike’s views are not necessarily Rabbit’s. The views from these blended perspectives do not appear profound, leading the critic, Harold Bloom’s pronouncement that Updike has a major style (which became even more remarkable in the fiction to come over a long career) but a minor subject. Set against this is a view that I’ve heard expressed by readers I know and respect, and who have read the whole run of four Rabbit novels, together with one long story, “Rabbit Remembered”, that Rabbit Angstrom is one of the great American characters, especially in “Rabbit Redux”, to be set alongside Huckleberry Finn, Isobel Archer, Jay Gatsby, Augie March, and so on. Updike, in this version, tells a great story about ordinary, mostly white, lower- and sometimes middle-class Americans, and conveys the lost promise of a nation that, paradoxically, can momentarily be regained.
“Rabbit, Run” can be read as a standalone novel about Harry Angstrom in the very late 1950s, in a dull job and an unhappy marriage but knowing that, “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 kinda takes the kick outa being second rate." The descriptions of Brewer and and its suburb, Mt Judge, and of the almost anonymous roads and roadside outlets that Rabbit encounters on his initial journey from Pennsylvania to West Virginia, are acutely perceptive of mid-twentieth-century Americana and, at the same time, down-to-earth realistic, presumably a consequence of Updike’s dual narrative perspective. A description of a diner and the dinner Rabbit eats outside Lancaster, Pennsylvania is so American, its blankness and yet its attractiveness, and is followed by an account that is much more than a mere account of what he hears on the different radio stations as he drives: songs, news bulletins (“Tibetans battle Chinese Communists in Lhasa … somebody tied with somebody in St Petersburg Open)”.
Moreover, there is a good deal of pain and some scenes of emotional intensity, with a sense, throughout the novel, of things happening and yet staying the same: “Now he is somewhere here”, Rabbit tells himself when a man filling Rabbit’s car with petrol, shortly after he breaks away from his life in Brewer, asks “Where you’re headed?” However, I will have to read the rest of the Rabbit series primarily because I have found it difficult to reach a satisfactory conclusion about Rabbit Angstrom, even one that recognizes his complexity. He is so mixed-up and causes so much damage and yet Updike is so sympathetic to him. I can, of course, appreciate Rabbit’s attractiveness – as I can respond to the evocative qualities of the central character in Bruce Springsteen’s song, “Glory Days”, about a small-town former sports hero. But Rabbit is a complete mess and only occasionally does he show real insight and then, it seems, not in a developmental way, even allowing for the lack of clarity in any life. Insight is there, but intermittently and invariably forgotten, for example, in the description of the home he is deserting: his little boy's broken toy; the closet door that always catches on the television; his and Janice’s sagging bed; the imitation wood-grain furniture. Here, the details tell against Rabbit's actions, particularly Nelson's broken toy, but they are fascinating more in their own right than in a larger context.
It should be acknowledged that Updike – influenced, as he confirms, by James Joyce’s “Ulysses” – includes indirect monologues by women characters, Janice and Ruth. These are, for me, entirely persuasive and reveal Rabbit’s behavior for what it is but what is odd is that Updike seems not to allow Rabbit to be as informed as we are, and the structure of the novel, suggest that Updike regards Janice and Ruth’s insights as less significant.
The least interesting aspect of “Rabbit, Run” are the sex-scenes, though these were sufficiently controversial at the time for Updike’s publisher to insist on some editing. The edits were later restored. Yet, one description of a sex scene is still remarkable, mostly for how long the description continues.
In case it seems that I have given away the ending, I should say that Rabbit’s flight south occurs near the start of the novel, as though Updike is reacting to the be-all-and-end-all driving that is at the heart of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” of 1957). Now for Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit is Rich(1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990).
Hard to get started but glad I did.
- D. Webster