Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom has peaked too soon in life. A former high school basketball star of his small home town, he’s now in an unhappy marriage with a ‘dumb’ wife, a young son he hasn’t really connected with (‘the kid’), and a dreary job. You probably know a guy like him. Maybe it’s even you, or parts thereof.
Itching to break away, Rabbit runs. He has an affair. He leaves his pregnant wife. It’s a scandal, further deepened by a tragedy which precedes Rabbit’s ultimate actions. Updike has stated that he intended this to be almost an anti-On the Road (see review, this blog), to show the consequences to the lives of those left behind by spontaneous and irresponsible actions.
“My subject is the American Protestant small-town middle class. I like middles. It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules”. – John Updike
Overall, it’s a great story, sympathetically told. It’s typical of the popular literary themes of the time: middle-class people dealing with the banality of their lives. What elevates it above similar tales of suburban ennui is Updike’s magnificent yet subtle poetical observations. It’s these which I wish to highlight.
Getting into his car for an initial hasty escape into the night, ‘He pulls the hand choke out a fraction, just enough to touch his fingertips’ The first part of this sentence would have been enough to convey a message, but the additional detail gives it resonance: anyone who’s driven an old car with a choke knows exactly this feeling. Looking deeper into this action, there’s a quietness to this subtle pinching motion – he is after all trying to sneak away.
It also speaks to Rabbit’s tactility, a recurrent theme in the book, as at the very beginning of the book when he plays a game of pickup basketball against some high school kids: ‘That old stretched leather feeling makes his whole body go taut, gives the arms wings. It feels like he’s reaching down through years to touch this tautness’.
As Rabbit drives through the night, ‘in the top of the windshield the telephone wires continually whip the stars. The music on the radio slowly freezes; the rock and roll for kids cools into old standards and show tunes and comforting songs from the Forties…Then these melodies turn to ice as real night music takes over, pianos and vibes erecting clusters in the high brittle octaves and a clarinet wandering across like a crack on a pond. Saxes doing the same figure eight over and over again.’
That first line is fantastic: we’ve all seen this, yet probably never thought (were not gifted enough) to ascribe this metaphor. And then the whole analogy of the music ‘freezing’ and the instruments taking on the qualities of ice.
After stopping at a late-night diner, ‘outside in the sharp air, he flinches when footsteps pound behind him. But it is just two lovers, holding hands and in a hurry to reach their car, their locked hands a starfish leaping through the dark’.
‘…their locked hands a starfish leaping through the dark’ – what an extraordinary image: because it’s cold (‘the sharp air’) so they’re probably both wearing coats, and all you would see is the paleness of their hands swinging (‘in a hurry’) through the darkness.
After returning to his hometown, Rabbit hides out in the shabby flat of his old, lecherous high school coach. As he wakes up and lays there ‘the slash of sun on the wall above him slowly knifes down, cuts across his chest, becomes a coin on the floor, and vanishes.’
The pairing of ‘knife’ and ‘cut’ is great, as is the transformation to ‘coin’, and we’ve all experienced this as we lay in bed after a big night, too lazy to get up, and knowing how long this passage of light across a room takes. Think about how many times you’ve been in a ‘serious’ situation, and how you’ve inadvertently fixated on some innocuous detail. That’s the poetic mind in action.
Some of Updike’s best observations are reserved for Ruth, the object of Rabbit’s philandering ways (the clue is in his nickname).
‘Ruth laughs, her laugh rings on the street like a handful of change thrown down.’
‘…her eyelids make a greasy blue curtain a she sips her daiquiri. Her chin takes some of the liquid’s green light.’ That last bit – great! (and highlights Updike’s seeming obsession with colours).
Here’s a great description of Ruth in a swimming pool:
‘Standing in the water she was cut off at the thighs like a broken statue…She climbs the little ladder, shedding water in great pale-green grape-bunches’. Say ‘great pale-green grape-bunches’ aloud and notice the slowed staccato effort of it – like hauling yourself out of the water?
In all of these examples is Updike’s utilisation of present-tense, which he described as being “liberating and rebellious in 1959” for its cinema-like immediacy:
“My novella was originally to bear the subtitle ‘A Movie’ and I envisioned the credits unrolling over the shuffling legs of the boys in the opening scuffle around the backboard, as the reader hurried down the darkened aisle with his box of popcorn”. – John Updike
There are other great observations which could be stand-alone maxims in themselves:
‘Everybody who tells you how to act has whisky on their breath.’
‘When you have the guts to be yourself, other people’ll pay your price.’
‘Funny, how what makes you move is so simple and the field you must move in is so crowded.’
Rabbit, Run will probably best appeal to those in a similar stage in life as the characters of the book. It’s a reminder that even in the seeming banality of middle-class life, poetic moments can be found.
There are four sequels to Rabbit, Run, chronicling the life of Rabbit, two of which earned Updike Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction, and the last being published in 2001. Some may also remember the 1984 Jack Nicholson film ‘The Witches of Eastwick’, adapted from Updike’s novel of the same name.