DIY MFA Reading List: “Rabbit, Run” by John Updike

The main character in Rabbit, Run – Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom – is a child. A horny, overconfident, disagreeable child who, for reasons that still baffle me, you can’t help but kind of hope for by the end of this incredibly frustrating novel by John Updike.

Rabbit has all the trappings of adulthood: a son, a job, an apartment, a pregnant wife, a car. But he moves through life like a child, always wanting more from others, never giving back to them, and unaware of the effect his actions might have upon those around him. He can switch from a low-grade amiability to an almost blind cruelty in the blink of an eye. In the first fifty or so pages of the novel, we see Rabbit abandon his pregnant wife and infant son, flee his home town, return, shack up with a prostitute, refuse to let the prostitute use birth control, and knock her up too.

Updike has an amazing power to insert the reader into the skin of his characters. His primary strength as a writer, if I had to pick just one, would be empathy. And Updike understands that young men like Rabbit are thinking, every second of every day, about one thing: sex. He’s nailed the psyche of a certain class of white, adolescent males (sorry, I couldn’t pass that one up). Rabbit is always on the hunt for tail. Whenever he sees a woman, he weighs her sexual assets and liabilities, imagines how she might perform in bed, and passes judgment on her desirability as a sex object … all within the first few seconds.

And women like Rabbit: as a former all-star basketballer in high school, he’s tall, athletic, good-looking, and confident. There’s more action in this novel than in Hugh Hefner’s mansion on Saturday night. But the star of Rabbit’s glory days is fading, and the afterglow isn’t living up to his expectations of it. Trapped in a disappointing suburb in Pennsylvania, in a disappointing job, married to a disappointing wife, with disappointing parents who always seem disappointed in his performance as a son … Harry’s life seems, well, disappointing.

Halfway through this novel, I too was ready to write Updike off as a disappointing writer. I just didn’t like Rabbit. He was coasting through life on his laurels, expecting the world to be handed to him on a platter, believing that his actions were free from all consequences. And Updike’s frequent forays into pages of what one of my college writing professors would call “verbal masturbation” – long, beautiful, expository, seemingly unnecessary, run-on sentences about everything from the way a phone rings to the way a Chinese dinner is assembled on a dining table – began to make my eyes glaze with boredom.

But then Updike introduces a guiding force in Rabbit’s life, an Episcopalian priest named Jack Eccles, who brings an interesting dynamic to the story. Eccles likes Rabbit, and spends months golfing with him, trying to convince Rabbit to return home. Rabbit is reluctant – now shacked up with June, his prostitute girlfriend (who, unbeknownst to Rabbit, is also pregnant), he’s free from all responsibility. Why should he return to his mildly alcoholic, somewhat unintelligent wife? Eccles slowly works with Rabbit; Rabbit repays the priest’s kindness by trying to bang his wife. Finally, when Janice gives birth to their new daughter, Rabbit returns home.

I don’t want to spoil any more of this novel than I already have, so I’ll just say that the results are disastrous. We see that Harry’s actions, in the final analysis, DO have consequences – major, heartbreaking consequences.

But rather than a sudden, transformative salvation, Rabbit continues to run from responsibility. By the end of this novel, you begin to understand that Rabbit cannot be counted on. Or, rather, that he can only be counted on to screw up (or just to screw): Rabbit will say the wrong thing, think the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, hit on the wrong woman. But it all feels “right”, or true, to Rabbit’s character. He’s not malicious … he’s just young, and unaware, and wants more than he thinks a boring life in the suburbs is going to provide.

There are several sequels to this book (I haven’t read any of them yet). I expect that Rabbit sees even more heartache in those future novels, and that he eventually does begin to grow into an adult. Updike cares so much about his characters that, by the end of Rabbit, Run, you can’t help but care a little bit about what kind of man Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom will turn into. Like Eccles, Updike seems to believe that Rabbit can be redeemed. But it will be up to Rabbit to take that first step towards salvation, and stop running away from difficult choices.

Just grow up, dude.

This review is one in a series for what I’m calling the The DIY MFA in Creative Writing.

Click here for the comprehensive listing of titles, and check back often for updates on other selections from the list.