Better Late Than Never?: Rabbit, Run by John Updike

Better Late Than Never?: Rabbit, Run by John Updike

So you run.

You do it for all sorts of reasons—because the road is flat, because the kids are loud, because your wife keeps giving you that look, because your husband is a fucking moron, because the shoes you’ve got on are just the right kind of snug and you ache for it, you ache for the pavement to bounce beneath your feet and the world to slide past you like it was set on wheels. You run because the days are just so damn tight lately. Because every hour that passes kills another life you never had and the walls close in and you find it that much harder to breathe.

There are a lot of reasons why you run, but there’s really only one Reason: to get out. To get free. Depending on what shape you’re in, you could make it a decent distance, if your legs are long and your lungs still work right. Maybe you make it out it of town. If you’re lucky, you might even get to the next state. But no matter how long your legs are, eventually they’ll give out; and when they do, it’s only a matter of time until everything else catches up to you. Running is great, but only while it lasts. And it can’t last forever.

Before Rabbit, Run, I’d never managed to get through a whole John Updike novel. I tried The Witches Of Eastwick, but I gave up after 50 pages; the prose was too meandering, and the characters too flatly hateful to hold my interest. The only real notion I had of Updike was that I always got him confused with John Steinbeck, enough so that when Updike passed away a couple of months ago, I was briefly amazed that the author of Grapes Of Wrath had lived to see our remake of the Great Depression. After I came to my senses, I had that impression I always get when an unfamiliar writer dies—that of a deadline missed, or an assignment dropped. Not a particularly important assignment, of course, but one I had been meaning to get around to eventually.

And hey, that’s what Better Late Than Never columns are all about. Updike left behind such a wealth of written material that it was hard to pick the best representation of his work; in the end, I just grabbed what’s probably his most famous novel, and crossed my fingers. Here I am, a week older and 307 pages wiser, and while I wouldn’t be comfortable giving Updike’s eulogy, I do think I have a clearer idea of the kind of novelist he was. In Witches, I found his descriptions maddeningly circular; in Rabbit, Run, that circularity, that holding the forward momentum back to take in the surroundings, works to capture the main characters’ lives. These are ordinary, sort of miserable people, and the only meaning they know can be found in an accumulation of moments.

Here’s an early passage, with Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom fooling around in a pick-up basketball game. He’s watching a kid he thinks has talent, just like he used to:

With luck he’ll become in time a crack athlete in the high school; Rabbit knows the way. You climb up through the little grades and then you get to the top and everybody cheers; with the sweat in your eyebrows you can’t see very well and the noise swirls around you and lifts you up, and then you’re out, not forgotten at first, just out, and it feels good and cool and free. You’re out, and sort of melt, and keep lifting, until you become like to these kids just one more piece of the sky of adults that hangs over them in the town, a piece that for some queer reason has clouded and visited them. They’ve not forgotten him; worse, they’ve never heard of him.

That transcendence only ever lasts a handful of seconds, the time it takes to complete the smooth motion of a jump shot. For that time—hell, even for the couple of years you keep making those shots—you’ve got it golden. But then you move on, and the feeling passes, and the worst of it is, you still remember it was there. You still remember what it was like when you actually mattered.

As heroes go, Rabbit isn’t much. A 26-year-old father and husband who spends his days pitching kitchen equipment and his nights dealing with a sullen, drunken wife, his youth is fading fast, and with it, any real chance for glory. So one afternoon, as much on a whim as anything, he flees. The closest thing he can give for a reason is that his wife, Janice, asked for cigarettes after he told her he’d decided to quit; it’s partly that, and it’s partly because he thinks she’s an idiot. But Rabbit isn’t much for introspection. He’s not all that smart. It seems like he doesn’t really understand why he’s running—he just does it because it’s something he can do.

One of the problems of coming to a famous novel years after it was first published is that there are generally few surprises left. Back when I read To Kill A Mockingbird, I knew the basic outline of the story, and I knew the ending; the book and movie were both strong enough that it didn’t matter much, but I still felt bad about not getting to experience it firsthand. With Run, though, the whole thing was a mystery. There are a series of novels about the title character, so I could be reasonably certain he didn’t die in this book. I knew that Rabbit was a former jock turned grown-up, but that was it. The story isn’t exactly plot-heavy, but there’s enough going on that I enjoyed flying blind. Some books are conventional enough that you could skip 50 pages and not miss a thing, but not this one.

Rabbit leaves home, so abruptly that I didn’t even realize what was happening until he started wondering about maps and routes south. He doesn’t make it far before turning around, heading back to town, and getting help from his old basketball couch. The coach tries half-heartedly to get him to go back to his wife, then takes Rabbit out to dinner with his mistress and her friend, Ruth. The whole thing is awkward as hell; Updike finds the uncomfortable topography of a conversation, charting each minor win and loss as the coach recounts Rabbit’s teenage victories to a bored audience, and Rabbit tries to make a good impression while hating the people around him for failing to measure up to what he’s looking for.

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One of the main themes of the book is what, exactly, that is; what need is it that drives Rabbit to leave Janice, and why he shacks up with Ruth, a sort-of prostitute whom Rabbit sort of falls in love with. It isn’t like their relationship is ideal. Ruth goes between enjoying his tenderness and resenting his crazy demands, and he goes wild about the way she looks without ever really caring for her. Given the nature of the relationships we see throughout the novel, maybe that’s only natural. Rabbit goes back to Janice because she gives birth to their second child, a daughter, but it isn’t like anything’s really changed between them. Throughout the book is the tragic undercurrent of trying to find meaning in life once it seems like the best days are behind you. In high school, Rabbit was a star, but he’ll never be that way again; he isn’t talented or driven enough to carve out a place for himself, and he isn’t articulate enough to express what’s frustrating him. So he bounces around and tries to find love and makes a mess of each life he lands on. Every action he takes in the book seems like that Far Side cartoon with the amoeba couple: “Stimulus response! Stimulus response! Don’t you ever think?”

Not that anyone else does much better. There’s a priest in the book, Eccles, who gets involved with Rabbit through his wife’s parents, and in trying to get Rabbit to do the “right thing,” he becomes fascinated by him, by the inadvertent charisma of a man who refuses to return to where he belongs. Rabbit doesn’t go in for religion, although part of what he’s hunting for is the kind of thing many people find through the church: a meaning behind everything, a purpose to getting through each day. Eccles can’t bring Rabbit back to God because his own belief is shaky, and he’s ultimately rendered impotent by his need to be good. When tragedy strikes, he blames himself, because he has to be guilty for everything somehow.

Rabbit, Run is very strong, although not perfect. Updike had a reputation for writing terrible sex scenes, and the ones in this novel, though not the worst thing ever, are pretty lousy. It’s as though Updike’s generally strong insight steps out of the room for a quick smoke, and some overeager imitator steps into its place, all thumbs and panting and hysterics. Here’s a passage from Rabbit and Ruth’s first time in bed:

Her thighs throw open wide and clamp his sides and throw open again so wide it frightens him, she wants, impossible, to turn inside out; the muscles and lips and bones of her expanded underside press against him a new anatomy, of another animal. She feels transparent; he sees her heart. She suspends him, subsides, and in the folds of her withering, his love and pride revive. So she is first, and waits for him while at a trembling extremity of tenderness he traces again and again the arc of her eyebrow with his thumb. His sea of seed buckles, and sobs into a still channel. At each shudder her mouth smiles in his and her legs, locked at his back, bear down.

“The folds of her withering” and “his sea of seed” are a bit much.

Apart from those sections, though, I enjoyed the novel. I appreciate how Updike was able to capture an impulse without judgment, and that he resisted the urge to provide some kind of moral to anything. While Rabbit is self-centered and immature, and his actions lead to something horrible (and the section leading up to that something is terrific), it’s hard to lay the blame wholly on his shoulders. Maybe if he’d been more willing to commit to his initial urge to get away, things might have worked out differently, but considering how many people told him he was “right” to come back home, it’s hard to blame him for doing just that.

A passage near the end of the book describes Rabbit’s predicament; it’s probably the closest Updike comes to laying things out clearly:

For what made him mad at Janice wasn’t so much that she was in the right for once and he was wrong and stupid but the closed feeling of it, the feeling of being closed in. He had gone to church and brought back this little flame and had nowhere to put it on the dark damp walls of the apartment, so it had flickered and gone out. And the feeling that he wouldn’t always be able to produce this flame. What held him back all day was the feeling that somewhere there was something better for him than listening to babies cry and cheating people in used-car lots and it’s this feeling he tries to kill, right there on the bus, he grips the chrome bar and leans far over two women with white pleated blouses and laps of packages and closes his eyes and tries to kill it. 

I’ll be turning 30 in a couple months. I’m not married, so I’m not tied to anyone, and in many ways my life is a greater success than I’d ever imagined it could be—but I can understand this feeling. The brief hope that there’s something waiting for you, and the terror that follows that hope, because what if you never find it? Worse, what if you don’t deserve to find it?

That’s why we run. Because when you’re moving fast enough, you barely touch the ground at all. And there’s always the chance that this time, if you hold strong, if you push yourself as far as you can go, you won’t ever have to come back down to earth.