Friday, October 4, 2013

Rabbit, Run

I have been wanting to tackle the Rabbit Angstrom books by author John Updike for some time. A few years ago, I had stumbled across this series on a list of 50 books that everyone should read at some point in their lives. The first book in the series was published in 1960 and is entitled Rabbit, Run. The story's main character is Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a 26 year old man who wakes up one day overwhelmed with a feeling of disgust toward his existence. In high school, Harry was the star athlete of his basketball team in Mt. Judge, PA. His struggle is summarized with his quote:

"... and after you're first rate at something, no matter what, it kind of takes the kick out of being second rate."

Suddenly, his plain wife, who just seems to sit around their small apartment drinking and smoking all day, sickens him. His petty job as an in-store salesman of a kitchen gadget makes him feel like he has somehow lost his way, that he has not achieved the type of career that he saw for himself. Harry gets into his car with the intention of just driving away, somewhere south, to find the sort of exciting life that he feels should be his. However, after driving all night and getting nowhere, he ends up back where he started. Beaten down in a deep, cloying desperation, he calls on his ex-coach, who introduces him to Ruth Leonard, a part-time prostitute. Ruth gives Harry a feeling of being truly alive that he has not experienced since high school. He moves in with her for a few months and seems to be surviving reasonably well.

However, Harry is eventually convinced by the minister of his wife's family to go to the hospital when his wife Janice goes into labor with their second child. With the sense of rebirth of the new arrival, Harry agrees to go back to his wife, figuring that he needs to grow up and be a Godly man to his family. Soon after, when he has a spat with Janice, he runs back to Ruth to shake off the self-absorbed, needy mess that he sees his wife as. When he leaves, Janice gets drunk to ease her pain, which ends up leading to a whole new level of horror. In the aftermath, Rabbit tries to support Janice, to deal with his circumstances, to face up to his family and hers, and to deal with the inevitable consequences of his affair, but it is all too much for him, so he runs off again to try to find some peace.

This story is written with a level of gritty realism that I have not encountered before in my reading. The feeling of being trapped in an existence that you want no part of, is written with such mastery that you become fully immersed into Harry's world. You become a part of him, suffering through his pain, conflict, and angst. The story telling and the level of artistry here were just sublime. Ladies and gentlemen, this is literature. Now, onto the second part of the story, Rabbit, Redux to find out what has become of Harry ten years later.