Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Rabbit, Run

Rabbit, Run
By John Updike

How have I managed to spend almost 37 years on this planet, living, breathing, ingesting pop culture and literature without reading John Updike? What's more, when I broke the spine on Rabbit, Run earlier this week, aside from the title, I knew absolutely nothing about the plot of this novel. I recently listened to an old interview with Updike and that spurred me to read it but other than that, he has never been on my literary radar. Somehow, John Updike's entire literary career (which was well and truly established when I was born) has remained obscured... until now.

For the few of you that have never read Updike's seminal 1960s American novel, Rabbit, Run, it chronicles several months in the life of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a former high school basketball standout in a small town in Pennsylvania. In his, albeit brief, adult life, Rabbit has not met with the same degree of success and adulation. His job, demonstrating a new kitchen gadget for housewives, is demoralizing and his pregnant wife struggles with alcohol problems. This aren't turning out as Rabbit has planned. Well, that's not entirely true. Rabbit never had a plan to begin with, but things are not turning out as he had imagined they would (and why would they without a plan?).

His wife, Janice, returns home one day in an alcoholic haze having left their car at her parents and their son at his, Rabbit sets out to pick up both. When gets to the car, instead of driving over to his parent's place, he sets out for, of all places, Georgia.  Over the course of a long night of rather aimless driving (as far as West Virginia!), Rabbit ultimately returns to to his hometown, but not to his wife. Instead, he seeks out his former high school basketball coach, Mr. Tothero, because he always knew what to do. What follows is the mother of all existential crises.

But before I get into that, I wanted to draw a few comparisons. Over the course of this exquisitely written novel I found myself comparing Rabbit to other characters in other novels from (roughly) the same era in American literature. Rabbit seems to encapsulate (in my mind) three other classic protagonists:

1. Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye: This comparison was obvious within the first ten pages of the novel. I couldn't help think that Rabbit was a small-town version of Caulfield had Holden somehow finished school and started a family before completely unravelling. Like Caulfield, Rabbit seems to lack a fundamental understanding of what it means to be a responsible adult. He's stuck in the past, trying desperately to relive his high school glory without any thought for the very real consequences of his actions in the present tense. Like Holden, there's a sense that Rabbit seems to think he has his affairs in order when it is vividly apparent that he does not. I wanted to reach into the novel and shake Rabbit by the shoulders and tell him to grow up. I had the same inclination the last time I re-read Catcher in the Rye.

2. Peter Keating from The Fountainhead: Peter Keating is the very definition of a mommy's boy. Keating is the artist turned architect (at the behest of his overbearing mother)who obsesses over material wealth at the expense of artistic integrity. Keating depends on the ideas and talent of Howard Roark to further his own career and never acknowledges his contribution. In fact, Keating goes out of his way to discredit Roark. It takes a decline of epic proportions for Keating to learn any sort of lesson from his egoism and even then, one wonders if he truly understand what it is he's done wrong.

While Rabbit is by no means a successful professional, he reminded me of Keating in the way he allows others dictate and control his life (willingly), even when he thinks he is in control. When Rabbit returns home after his aborted drive south, he finds his former high school coach, Mr. Tothero, because he was an authority figure in his life that can tell him what to do. Rabbit is constantly manipulated by his mother, mother-in-law, Eccles, Tothero and, to a lesser extent, Ruth and Janice but rarely thinking for himself. When he does think for himself, he treats those around him with a gross disrespect, giving little thought to the consequences of what he says and what he does. When the inevitable damage is inflicted, he looks to others to clean up his messes.

3. Sal Paradiso in On The Road: I admit, I nicked this comparison from an interview I heard with Updike a few weeks prior to reading this, but it stuck and I noticed it. Kerouac and Updike wrote Rabbit, Run and On the Road at roughly the same time. Kerouac writes about Sal Paradiso, a man completely unhinged from the mainstream society. A man living his life minute to minute without much thought for responsibility or consequence. Paradiso takes off and simply wanders aimlessly across the country without much care for money, family or, well anything, really... except for kicks.

Rabbit is the Anti-Paradiso. His short foray into the world of Kerouac is comical, at best. At the beginning of the novel Rabbit drives off in the hopes of reaching the Gulf of Mexico. Instead, the farther Rabbit gets from his hometown, the more anxious he becomes. He is hopelessly lost and confused. His small-town mind has trouble digesting the larger world around him. I liked what Updike said in interview about this comparison when he noted that if everyone up and unhinged themselves from society as Sal Paradiso did, there would be nobody left behind to get things done. I'm not sure whether Rabbit was the best person to leave behind for getting things done, but not everyone is cut out for the road, least of all, Rabbit.

Another thing that troubled me about this book (in a good way, I assure you) is the time immediately prior to the first page of this novel. The disintegration of Rabbit happens so quickly and completely that one has to wonder what exactly was holding Rabbit together for the first two years of his marriage. Certainly the troubles that lead to him leaving his wife existed the day before he left her and probably the month before and the year before. Why then and how come he seems to unravel further as the novel progresses. What sort of wall was holding that angst within him for so long?

Like Holden Caulfield, I managed to muster very little sympathy for Rabbit throughout this book. but I reserved my greatest disgust for the character of Eccles, the minister who feels it is his duty to repair the broken marriage between Rabbit and Janice. I abhor people who find it their business to mess with other people's business. I suppose in a deeply religious small-town this might be more commonplace, but the idea of unsolicited involvement in the affairs of others is disgusting and borders on voyeurism. In the process of meddling into the familial affairs of people in the community (not even one of his parishioners!!!), Eccles sets up the pins for the novel's great tragedy. Ironically, while others in the novel give and take their blame for said tragedy (I'm not playing spoilers here) nobody gets off easier than Eccles. He simply walks away, unscathed. That's organized religion for you.

Oddly enough, the character with which I identified most was Mrs. Eccles. She seems to see through not only her husband's litany of bullshit but also Rabbit's. This ability to cut through their personalities and understand them at a more primal level (Updike sets her up as the voice of rationality as a dichotomy against her husband's faith) sets her apart as one of the only characters in the book that can honestly wash her hands of the affair and consider herself blameless. She has her husband pegged as a gossip hound from the start and fundamentally understands the train wreck that is Rabbit at first glance. One has to respect that sort of foreknowledge.

Rabbit, Run is the sort of novel that merits a lot more than a simple blogpost and I'll be mulling this novel over in my brain for years to come. It raises all sorts of issues concerning the nature of small-town America, it's struggle between tradition and modernity, religion and reason, and the nature of right and wrong. Above are just a few of the notes I made about this book while reading and certainly not an exhaustive interpretation of the novel (I am not equipped to do such a thing in the space provided by Blogger). I shudder to think what I might write if I waited another two or three days to organize my thoughts further.

If you haven't yet read Rabbit, Run, do so. Whether you like it or hate it, it's the sort of novel that must be read. It's a benchmark literary work that has influenced so much American literature since its publication. I will be revisiting this novel more than once in the years ahead.


Marie said...

One of these days I'll get around to reading Updike. I'm a little older than you and have yet to explore his work.

Jonathan Wilhoit said...

I've got a couple Updike novels on my shelf that I haven't read yet. I think you just convinced me to move them up in the queue. ;)

Ryan said...

I officially endorse Updike to both of you. You won't be disappointed. Promise.

Anonymous said...

I always, always, always see his vast shelf at the library and I always want to pick one, but I never do. I guess I'll start here after reading your review and knowing it compares with Catcher. Thanks for pointing me in the right direction. :)

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