John Updike: Rabbit Run (review)

816360‘So tall, he seems an unlikely rabbit, but the breath of white face, the pallor of his blue irises, and a nervous flutter under his brief nose as he stabs a cigarette into his mouth partially explain the nickname, which was given to him when he too was a boy.’ (p. 3)
For years I’ve been hearing about John Updike and his four books about Harry Angstrom, the man know as Rabbit. Three of the four books about Rabbit are on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and two of the books even received the Pulitzer Prize. Before he died, Updike was mentioned frequently as a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature – together with one of my favorite authors Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth who so far does nothing but impress me. So he’s an impressive author. But so far Updike hasn’t really won me over. I read Terrorist a couple of years ago and liked it but felt let down by the ending. I watched The Witches of Eastwick and can’t remember much from it. But now it was time for me to try out the Rabbit series.
Rabbit Run is a very apt name for a book about a man who basically runs whenever faced with adversity. Back in the 1960s, Harry Angstrom is living with pregnant wife Janice and their son Nelson. But one day the drinking habits of his wife and the smallness of their apartment just gets to be too much and he leaves. In a way, he goes back in time to the one thing he was good at, by going to see his old basketball coach and after staying there for one night, the coach takes him out to meet two women – who turns out to be prostitutes.
This doesn’t prevent Rabbit from hooking up with one of them and going to live with her. Besides basketball, he is definitely good at falling in and out of love with people.
Meanwhile, his wife has gone back to live with her parents and the family has contacted a local pastor who reaches out to Rabbit and the two men strike up a friendship by going golfing together. The pastor has lost his faith but by saying the right things, he somehow manages to make Rabbit more of a believer than he himself is and the pastor tries to reconcile Rabbit and Janice.
Rabbit is not a likable character. He leaves when things get rough and leaves heart ache behind. He is 26 years old and hasn’t quite figured out what it means to be a grown man with a responsibility. But this book is not just about one man’s lack of maturity and of the ability to become who he is supposed to be. He might be an example of what happens with (American) boys and men who have all of their identity given to them through the sports they play – and who are lost when they are no longer able to play, for whatever reason. It’s also a book about what happens with families where one person is the black sheep and what hurt this causes the rest of the family. And this might be true of both Harry and Janice.
I’m not quite sure why I didn’t like the book more. When I read, I sort of start out with a neutral attitude towards the book I’m reading and this book just never really did anything to either impress me or annoy me. It just stayed neutral. There are passages which are amazing. There’s a shocking scene towards the end which is so well written. It feels so frantic and desperate and it’s just perfect. Also, and this might sound strange, but the way Updike writes about a new mother’s breasts and the milk leaking from them and soaking her clothes, is just so spot on. He has definitely been paying attention when he and his wife had children. He pays a lot of attention to details but not so much that it ruins the book,  rather just enough to give it a flavor that both makes the characters and (at least part of) the 60s come alive.
I have not given up on this series because I think it has a lot of potential as a image of days gone by. The scenes in the hospital where Janice has her baby and Rabbit is not allowed to see the baby before the next day because visiting hours are over, is so telling of how it was before. Or how he can get annoyed by the way his wife pours the milk on his cereal because he has gotten used to pouring his own milk – well, just do it then! Things certainly has changed and as I understand it, the books are set ten year apart and I find the idea of this, the whole project, very fascinating. I’m just questioning the execution.

First line:
Boys are plaing basketball arund a telephone pole with a backboard bolted to it.

  • Title: Rabbit Run (The Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom series #1)
  • Author: John Updike
  • Publisher: Andre Deutsch
  • Year: 1972 (original 1961)
  • Pages: 309 pages
  • Source: Rented from the library
  • Stars: 3 stars out of 5

I read this one for the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list and because I had a goal to explore John Updike a bit this year.

8 thoughts on “John Updike: Rabbit Run (review)

  1. I own a copy of this and have been wanting to try it for a while. Sorry to hear it didn’t move you. I think I prefer books that I hate over ones that produce a neutral response so that is a bad sign for me. I’ll still get round to trying it one day, but I’m even less excited about doing so now!

  2. I read the first book for an English class in high school. I remember being fascinated by it. However, I must not have been THAT fascinated as I have not read the other books after it.

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