Steven's Reviews > Rabbit, Run

Rabbit, Run by John Updike
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May 31, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: 1001, updike, esquire75, time-100, suburban-angst
Read in June, 2008

** spoiler alert ** I picked up this book from the library with the full intention of loathing it. I had understood it to be Updike’s response to Kerouac’s “On the Road” depicting the fact that when young men go on the road the people left behind get hurt. I expected the book to be preachy and puritan, it was not. Instead, the book was the introduction to one of the greatest characters in American Literature. Esquire in naming it one of the 75 books that every man should read, summed it up perfectly, “… it’s about the guy you idolized in high school. And kitchen gadgets. And you.”

The novel begins with Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom playing a game of basketball with some local youths in his Pennsylvania hometown. Harry is a former high school basketball star, but now he is twenty-six, sells kitchen gadgets, is married to his high school girlfriend Janice, and is the father of a two-year old son named Nelson. Rabbit is going through what we have now come to call a quarter-life crisis. He finds his marriage and life stifling and isn’t terribly excited about being a father again as Janice is again pregnant. So, Rabbit goes out for cigarettes and he just keeps driving on and on, away from everything.

He eventually returns and visits his old high school basketball coach. He is convinced to go on a dinner double date (to what was apparently a rather exotic locale at the time, a Chinese restaurant) and meets Ruth Leonard. Ruth and Rabbit get to know one another and begin an affair. The affair crumbles, though on the night when Rabbit gets jealous and he coaxes Ruth into performing oral sex on him (which was just scandalous at the time) on the same night that he leaves to visit the hospital where his daughter, Rebecca June, is born. Rabbit goes back to his family, at least temporarily, and starts working at his father-in-law’s car dealership.

After a failed attempt of sex with his wife, Rabbit again leaves looking for Ruth. Janice, in a drunken and depressed stupor, then accidentally drowns their daughter. Rabbit has other problems, though, as he has now impregnated Ruth for demands that he either divorce Janice or she will abort their child. Rabbit, of course, can’t make a decision and he winds of fleeing.

As my rehashing of the plot makes clear, there is quite a bit of plot in this novel, and the themes are pretty adult for the late 1950s. Updike, however, is a master of the slow deliberate style where action progresses very slowly (McEwan is the best at this in my humble opinion). You would think that would make the sex scenes better, but they are not the best I have ever read. What I liked most about the book, though, is that the characters are all very human. You root for Rabbit sort of like the way you root for Tony Soprano, you know he is a real bad person, but you still identify with him. Nobody is completely angelic, even Janice is a bit of an alcoholic, and problems are never completely resolved. The book is also an exceptional retelling of how stifling middle-class suburbia can be, even for the hometown hero basketball player.
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