Book Review - Rabbit, Run (1960)

Back in June, I posted to this blog my review of Anderson Cooper's book Dispatches from the Edge, which got such a good response that I decided to do more. A friend recommended this book by John Updike as well as the book's sequel and has been urging a conversation for a year or two, so I figured Rabbit, Run would be a good follow-up. I'm also writing two book reviews for Film International magazine and this will help me to get into the groove of putting those pieces together, which I need because I haven't read a novel or any book in years, opting instead to binge on TV and movies.

Rabbit, Run was adapted into a movie, but I haven't seen it, so no analysis of the film will will bleed into this review. Instead, this analysis will only focus on the prose, the words that Updike laid down. Within this review, I will refer to specific page numbers for quoting purposes. When I do, it will be from the 2003 paperback first edition The Rabbit Novels Volume I or ISBN 0-345-46456-7. At the top of which, it states that Updike is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and reading this book, it's obvious why. Updike clearly has mastered the language. He has paragraphs with amazing descriptions that can be powerful and moving.

The synopsis is essentially a man abandons his pregnant wife. He revisits his past. He has an affair. He gets another woman pregnant. He returns to his wife, only because something horrible happens to her. It all takes place in suburban Pennsylvania in 1959 and is an interesting window into that time and setting, but what's stunning is the level of sex and sexuality here. It's not erotica. Updike merely describes the sex acts with as much detail and specificity as anything else, although an argument could be made that they're moreso.

There were some questions as to why Updike named his main character Rabbit. The very first paragraph offers an explanation. The look of his face has qualities that are reminiscent of a rabbit, but if you look at the amount of sex this man has, you'd think that that was what resembled the small hopping animal. In fact, the reason Rabbit abandons his wife Janice is due to the lack of intercourse. Sex isn't the sole reason why Rabbit abandons Janice. He had other reasons, but going off what he does afterward, sex with someone else seems like the only reason. On page 12, Rabbit tries, as Updike writes, "to bring his loins against her, but her solid belly prevents him." That belly isn't just fat. It's a baby. Janice is pregnant.

I suppose I should give Updike credit for creating a main character who is so unlikeable. How can we like a man who leaves his pregnant wife? On page 39, after Rabbit meets up with his old basketball coach, Mr. Tothero, Rabbit calls his wife dumb. On page 91, after Rabbit meets up with his old minister Jack Eccles, he calls his wife a mutt. How can we like a man who also says these awful things about the mother of his children?

Eccles asks Rabbit why he left Janice, and Rabbit doesn't really give a good reason. He does say that Janice is an alcoholic but Updike really doesn't set that up all too well. Given the reactions from family and friends, and given that it's 1959, I suppose Rabbit's run is the only thing he could do, but Updike doesn't play it with much, if any, sympathy. Updike likes to make references to film. The Oscar-winning The Lost Weekend (1945) could have been an obvious choice, but instead Updike only gives a glimpse but otherwise overlooks the alcoholism. When Updike puts the story in Janice's p.o.v. on page 214, it feels like a pointless exercise. What happens to Janice at the end certainly has punch, but is unearned because it comes out of nowhere.

From page 230 to 241, Updike gives us great expressions of grief, blame, regret and sorrow. Tragedy is struck and on page 253, Rabbit looks at himself as not being responsible in any way. In the final pages, we get that Rabbit might not even understand what responsibility is. He's 26 and he doesn't see the consequences of his actions.

Updike prefaces Rabbit, Run with a quote from Blaise Pascal, a 17th century, French philosopher, mathematician and inventor. A collection of Pascal's writings never-before-released were published posthumously called Pensées. From it, Updike pulls, "The motions of Grace, the hardness of the heart; external circumstances." Pascal's words are echoed when on page 40, Tothero says, "I don't believe that my greatest boy would grow so hard-hearted."

Tothero is rather appalled at Rabbit's behavior, especially to that toward his wife. Even though he is far removed from the situation, Tothero feels a responsibility about it that stands as a stark contrast to Rabbit's lack thereof. Rabbit's father isn't brought into the story until two-thirds through, but Tothero acts in a fatherly way toward Rabbit.

On page 55, Tothero says, "A boy who has had his heart enlarged by an inspiring coach... can never become, in the deepest sense, a failure in the greater game of life." It was Tothero's belief that as Rabbit's coach it was his job to help him develop three tools: the head, the body, and the heart. When Tothero talks about developing the body, he says, "Make their legs hard... Hard. Run, run, run."

Based on the opening, it's assumed that Rabbit in his hey day was a first-rate basketball player, so no question he could run and that his legs were hard. His body was developed. As the events in this book rolls out, we get the picture that maybe none of those other tools were developed. Tothero perhaps, as his coach, failed to develop those tools and he seems sad about that. This, however, completely goes over Rabbit's head. Because his legs were the only tools developed, running is the only thing he knows to do.

Three Stars out of Five.
Contains Profanity and Sexual Content.
264 pages.


Popular Posts