“Have you read Rabbit, Run by Updike?” my friend wrote. “I want to like it.”
In fact, I had not. John Updike was a name that I had heard, but had nothing with which to associate it, not through any fault of his own. I simply hadn’t read any of his (many) books.
I picked up Rabbit, Run after my friend sent me this not-so-glowing recommendation. It sounded like good material for an in-depth discussion with someone who’s opinions I respect and enjoy. So I began.
In short, I liked it. I’m easy to impress with words — describe a sunrise in a unique and existential way, and I’m yours.
Sunrise, an orange strip crushed against a far hill, flares between their wheels.
It’s true, the characters are misogynistic and racist (“It’s in the south side of Brewer, the Italian-Negro-Polish side, and Rabbit distrusts it.”) But I also think that’s what Updike was going for. He stated that Rabbit, Run was his response to On the Road, it’s the realistic version of what happens when someone decides to escape the reality of day to day living by running, and running far. And, of course, the characters in On the Road were no saints either, quite the contrary, and Updike’s tale captures the prejudiced history of 1950s white America.
Rabbit is, of course, despicable in many ways. He’s self-centered, egotistical. He uses women and abandons his pregnant wife and child on a whim. He wants to be great, but he doesn’t want to work for it. He’s entitled and angry and bored. Harry Angstrom is, well, full of angst.
Despite this, he’s easy to identify with because the existential meaning of these flaws are all something to which we can relate. At his core, Rabbit wants his life to mean something. As a basketball star in high school his identity was given to him and it was easy. As a young adult, especially one who peaked in high school, his self-identity is thrown into turmoil because he’s no longer impressive.
Instead, Rabbit is a half-hearted salesman with an unhappy family life where his wife is almost always drunk and they sit in front of the TV every day. It reminds me of that scene in Little Miss Sunshine where they talk about Proust and your “prime suffering years.” Rabbit missed those, and now he’s wondering what the meaning of his life is as he continues to procreate with a woman he hardly loves as a man he no longer recognizes.
It’s a certain suburban malaise. One that we’ve only partially outgrown. From a modern feminist perspective, yes, it makes sense to criticize Rabbit’s desire to dominate women as a way of appeasing his fear of death and meaninglessness. But the daily drone of working, alcohol as a lubricant for banal tasks, the desire to just run away? Not obsolete, not at all.
The fluidity of Updike’s Tarbox, with its boozy volleyball games and adulterous couples copulating alfresco, has disappeared into the Starbucks lattes and minivans of our current suburbs, and our towns and cities are more solid, our marriages safer; we have landed upon a more conservative time.
The beauty of Updike, of course, lies in his prose. And his prolificness. I’m tempted to read at least one of the other Rabbit books — to see if he keeps running, or finally takes root.
Image from screenpunk on Flickr.