Jeffrey's Reviews > Rabbit, Run

Rabbit, Run by John Updike
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Mar 25, 09

Read in March, 2009

I didn't like this book when I first started reading it. If it hadn't been for the book club that chose this as its next read, I probably would not have gone past 100 pages, which is what I give a book before giving up on it. The language is glorious. "The cuticle moons on this fingernails are big." "His downstairs neighbor's door across the hall is shut like a hurt face." "Brewer spread(s) out below like a carpet, a red city, where they paint wood, tin, even red bricks red, an orange rose flowerpot red that is unlike the color of any other city in the world yet to the children of the county is the only color of cities, the color all cities are." "Laws aren't ghosts in this country, they walk around with the smell of earth on them." What stopped me from liking the book from the beginning was the main character, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a self-absorbed, fatuous jerk who, in a fit of contempt for all his life has become, walks out on his pregnant wife and their young son. Runs, actually. It's difficult to like a man whose main action is that of a man on the run from all his responsibilities. He takes up with a sometime prostitute named Ruth whom he literally sweeps off her feet, treats her with respect (though he does pay her that first night) and makes her feel, for the first time in a long time, like a person worthy of respect. Just by the power of his being. It's too bad, because her affection for him only reaffirms for Rabbit his righteousness. The world he left is one of confinement, stifling conformity, where responsibility to others is more important than satisfying one's own desires and urges.

The book dragged for me, until Reverend Jack Eccles appeared on the scene. He is Rabbit's wife's family's pastor (whew) and he carries the burden of bringing Rabbit back to the fold of society. Eccles is a man of principle, a man of faith, who believes in the sanctity of marriage. "Even bad marriages," he tells his wife, admitting to her that the marriage Rabbit has with Janice is, indeed, a bad one, one that should not go on. No matter. For Eccles, saving Rabbit means saving some part of himself, some part of him that has started to believe, maybe just a little, that there are no values left worth saving in the world. His wife, Lucy, is a non-believer, goes to church because her husband is the pastor, because it is her responsibility to go to church. In essence, Eccles must save Rabbit in order to save his own family life, his own wife, himself. Eccles is the calm voice of reason. He doesn't tell Rabbit that what he's doing is wrong. He becomes Rabbit's friend, gets him a job, plays golf with him once a week. In the end, he believes, Rabbit will realize on his own the err of his ways. He will return to his wife because he believes that deep down Rabbit is a good man, Rabbit understands his place in society, Rabbit will conform to what is expected of him because that is what he is supposed to do.

Eccles gave me sympathy for Rabbit, an understanding that what he feels is what we all feel, in a way. That society lays down rules and sometimes those rules are hard to follow. Taking place in an America of the 1950s gives the book that much more punch. Rabbit is the conscience of an America that is about to rise against the norms, that is about to give birth to beat poetry and free love and the civil rights movement and ERA. Rabbit is a member of a society whose sun is setting. The metaphorical conflict between Rabbit and Eccles is that of tradition versus rebellion. Eccles represents society as it is. Rabbit, in his struggle to break free, represents a society that can be. But in order for the rebellion to occur, Rabbit must break free of it. Must escape from it. Must run.
I'm reminded as a write this of a 1970s science-fiction movie called Logan's Run, about a society that doesn't let anyone live past 30. When a person reaches this age, he or she is killed, promised that they will be reborn, their circle of life will continue. Logan 5 is himself both Eccles and Rabbit. He is charged by the powers that be with the task of uncovering a rebellion that threatens the stability of society, to find the underground movement known as Sanctity and destroy it. But in order to do this, he must himself become a runner, one who's time to die has come but who refuses to participate in the ritual and instead runs, attempts to escape the city and live outside. In the process of uncovering this Sanctity, he himself comes to believe that what society has told him all along may be wrong, that is is possible to live past thirty, that the norms and conformities that he has spent his life upholding may in fact be a lie. Logan 5 starts his story as Eccles, defending society, but in the end he becomes Rabbit, running because he realizes that the society in which he lives has no place for him. He must leave it in order to live.

Knowing that Updike wrote many more books about Rabbit Angstrom, I'm now interested in reading more of them. Where does Rabbit go now? How does his story match the progression of America during the latter half of the 20th Century? Because in essence that is what the book, and Rabbit's life, is about. America in the 20th Century.
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