Beginning with a kid’s back-alley basketball game, Updike’s novel, ‘Rabbit, Run’, lures the reader in by foreshadowing the deeper events to come later. The game is interrupted by an ‘odd adult’, 26 year old Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom – our (anti-?) hero. Even here, on the basketball court, where Rabbit feels most at ease in his own skin, he is an outsider and unwanted. Imagine how he fits into the wider American society – the middle class family life, the department store job demonstrating and selling the ‘Magipeel’, and being a member of the Episcopal Church. It is this basketball game that initially represents his estrangement from society, a theme which develops deeply throughout the novel.
On the surface this is a story about an angst-ridden young man. Updike’s choice of the surname ‘Angst’rom is almost certainly intentional. Incidentally, the Scandinavian surname is also likely a reference to the influence of Søren Kierkegaard upon the formation of the character. The nineteenth century Danish philosopher is most often considered an early existentialist thinker, who openly criticised (among other things) religion and the church, as well as morality and ethics. Deeper down, the novel deals with a host of delicate subjects, spanning life, love, sex, gender, death, etc… Each of these, and many others, are touched on delicately and skillfully throughout – Updike’s writing is brilliant, natural and enthralling.
Rabbit is angry and ill-at-ease with the situation his life has morphed into over the preceding years. As a teen Rabbit was the confident and athletic pace-keeper (hence ‘Rabbit’ / also, partly hence ‘Rabbit, Run’, the other reason for the title becomes apparent multiple times throughout the novel) for his high school basketball team. However, his journey from the centre of attention and peer adoration to a miniature, meaningless cog in society, leaves him disillusioned and in search of some meaning or some unknown, forgotten feeling which, in the vacuity of middle-class American society is ultimately unattainable.
His journey – from one side of the suburbs to the other and back again – doesn’t seem particularly impressive. However, the implication is that he has traversed a mountain, both physically in Mount Judge which presides over Brewer, and metaphorically in the mountain of judgement from his peers. Subtle language such as this are rife in Updike’s novel, revealing themselves intermittently and ultimately adding to the experience of reading his writing. In this manner, and no doubt in other ways, Updike pastiches things like the ‘American Dream’, dissecting them and de-mythologising them. For example, the notion of the open road earlier on in the novel symbolising escape and freedom for Rabbit, while reminiscent of Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’, is stunted and thwarted by his inability to navigate effectively outside of his hometown; even when he does find himself in another area and stops for midnight coffee, he only finds that, “he is unlike the other customers,” and at this point he wonders if he is in fact “outside” all [of] America.
There is possibly books out there already full to the covers with analysis of Rabbit as a character and I would definitely love to read them. There is a whole treasure chest of things about him which I have failed to mention here, such as his blatant disregard for women and the feminine for example, or, as Julian Barnes put it, “how harshly transactional much of the sex was,”. However, what I think was most interesting about reading ‘Rabbit, Run’, is that, despite all of these things, Rabbit is most certainly a likable relate-able character. This is probably testimony to Updike’s skill in that the reader, while feeling a sort of disdain towards Rabbit, also feels a simultaneous empathy too.
I am very much looking forward to borrowing copies of the rest of the tetralogy from the library and getting reading…