Sunday, March 22, 2009

Nowhere To Hide

The prolific American writer John Updike died of cancer at the age of 77, in January of this year. Our book club had not read any of Updike’s works so we decided to read his well known “Rabbit Run”, the first novel in a series of four stories about the life of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom.

“Rabbit Run” begins with Harry joining a group of boys playing basketball in an alley. Harry is a young man trapped in a marriage to the girl friend he impregnated three years ago. Harry was the golden boy in high school, a record holding basketball star who was famous throughout the county. But eight years later he finds himself in a depressed town, demonstrating a kitchen gadget called the MagiPeel Peeler in five and dime stores. When his somewhat drunk wife asks him to pick up their son from grandma’s and a bring her pack of cigarettes, Rabbit impulsively leaves town and drives toward Philadelphia listening to song after song on the radio and envisioning his new life.

And so begins the saga of Rabbit running. He doesn’t get very far and is annoyed with a farmer who tells him, “The only way to get somewhere, you know, is to figure out where you’re going before you go there.” This is something Rabbit cannot understand. Harry acts on impulse, wherever it leads, he will go. He returns to town but not to home. He seeks the advice of his basketball coach, a disgraced womanizer, and finds himself in the bed of a local whore. This works for awhile until he gets the call that his wife is giving birth to their second child and he runs to her side.

Updike’s Rabbit is a man who seduces people by his charm and then leaves them. No one has ever told Harry “to grow up”. Yet Harry is overwhelmed by a sense of spiritual emptiness. He tells the minister who is trying to help him, “I do feel that somewhere behind all this (he gestures toward the scenery) there’s something that wants me to find it.”

The story reaches a climax when Harry returns to Janice and makes a feeble effort to rekindle the marriage. For the first time we hear Janice’s voice. But he can’t stay. Again he runs. The shocking tragedy that occurs when Harry leaves is something for which neither Janice nor Harry will accept blame.

John Updike created a character in Harry Angstrom that has become a literary icon. Updike wrote a series of sequels which followed Harry throughout his life, “Rabbit Redux“(1971), “Rabbit is Rich” (1981) and “Rabbit at Rest” (1990). Updike won the Pulitzer Prize for “Rabbit Redux” and “Rabbit is Rich”. John Updike has been praised for writing beautiful prose. His sentences are charged with emotion but always controlled. He was able to capture a decade, the 50’s, with detailed descriptions of a time and place and present a character that you both loved and hated at the same time. It is possible that John Updike may find greater fame posthumously as readers revisit these amazing stories.

There's an interesting discussion of "Rabbit Run" on the Slate Audio Book Club. You might want to listen online or download it.

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