A book review.
This 1960 novel by John Updike is the first in a series of four novels chronicling the life of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a man who peaked in high school. Rabbit, Run introduces us to Rabbit as a 26 year old man with a disappointing job in a department store and a troubled marriage. As the title implies, the plot of this book centers around his flight from responsibility, domestication, and ordinariness.
Plot summary with spoilers
Not being skilled in literary criticism, I don't know how to tell you about this novel without giving some stuff away. If you don't want to have anything spoiled, perhaps you should skip to the next section.
In the opening pages, Rabbit takes a brief look at his life and cannot stand what he sees. In the eight years since high school, he has descended from a basketball state champion to a demonstrator of kitchen appliances in a retail store. How could this happen? How could he be married to this little, unbalanced woman? How did I end up with this messy little boy? And there is another one on the way! You can almost hear David Byrne singing, This is not my beautiful house; this is not my beautiful wife! So he runs. He gets into his car, and he drives away.
After driving to West Virginia and back — fear getting the best of him — he returns to a small Pennsylvania town, Brewer, adjacent to the one he ran away from, Mt. Judge. There, he meets his old high school basketball coach who takes him in and introduces him to Ruth. Ruth, perhaps the only character in the book I liked, is a headstrong woman that pays her rent the old fashioned way, but Rabbit has ideas of his own of how the world should work. He convinces her to let him move in with her, to quit hooking, and to be his lover. Unbeknownst to him, he gets her pregnant.
Shame, guilt, or boredom with his new life begin to wear on the ever restless Rabbit. He begins to find flaws in Ruth and begins to dislike her in the same ways he disliked his wife. When his wife goes to the hospital to give birth to their daughter, Rabbit takes the opportunity to leave Ruth. For a faint moment, we have the hope that he is finally going to do the right thing, even though we know he is unknowingly abandoning yet another mother and child. He returns to his wife, Janice, and reconciles with his and her family, and for a time, forgets about Ruth.
But old habits die hard, and he again grows restless. He leaves and tries to get back in touch with Ruth. In the time he is gone, however, Janice takes it hard. The humiliation begins to wear on her, and, despite her responsibilities to her newborn, she drinks and drinks to blunt the pain. In her stupor, she allows the baby to drown in the bathtub.
Out of the tragedy that follows, Rabbit is, again, given the opportunity to be a man and live up to his responsibilities. His wife and their families, again, take him back, and in the time before the funeral, we have hope that he will do the right thing. But in the end, he feels closed up again, caged, and he lashes out cruelly against his wife for no reason. So shocking and horrific is his cruelty that he instantly knows there is nothing he can do but run. And so the book ends with him running. To where? Read the next book, I suppose.
Rabbit is clearly a man that feels like the world owes him something. In high school, he was on top of the world, and in the reality of the adult life that followed, everything else was a disappointment. Rabbit feels like he is that superstar, that champion. He feels like James Bond in the sense that all the women want him and that all the men want to be him. When that fantasy is challenged, or when the unremarkableness of his life is too much for him to handle, he runs.
Rabbit is one of the most detestable characters I have ever read. There is nothing to like about him. To me, he demonstrates the worst aspects of the American male — the right to dominate and humiliate women, the sense of entitlement to all the best things, the belief that he can do nothing wrong. So overwhelming is Rabbit's arrogance, wickedness, and cruelty that the whole book is colored by it and makes the book an unpleasant read. Updike does this for a reason, I assume, in order to blow apart myths and stereotypes, or so the book cover suggests. So what are those?
Perhaps his target is the enterprising American male. Rabbit is a star athlete in high school and as such represents our highest aspirations of achievement, though behind his back mere mortals call him a showboat. But the tightly controlled circumstances of high school do not compare with the realities of the adult world. Rabbit cannot function in a world with such complexities as marriage, family, death, work. Such things are messy, and he wants neatness and order. Neatness and order, though, are unnatural and always give way to change.
Perhaps Updike is taking aim at the American middle class? I haven't given this much thought, but none of the other characters are painted in a very favorable light. Updike's portrayal of middle America shows well-intentioned, but impotent, a religious leader trying to steer a disinterested flock towards... what? In the end, Reverend Eccles admits that he believes in nothing.
What about family? Marriage? No family he depicts is healthy. All of them argue and pick and snap and gossip. Of course they do, you say, but this was published in 1960 and Leave it to Beaver was on TV. Every marriage in the book is plagued with alienation between the partners. And none of the parent-child relations are healthy. What's wrong with us, America? I don't know, and I didn't get a hint from this book. All I got was a bad taste in my mouth.