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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Rabbit, Run

The critical reaction to "Revolutionary Road" (a movie I have not seen) seemed to indicate a sense of general tiredness toward the themes of suburban angst and unhappiness in marriage. So I thought it was somewhat curious that John Updike's recent death seemed to be marked with a renewed interest (and outpouring of critical admiration) in his novel Rabbit, Run, which as far as I knew, centered on the themes of suburban angst and unhappiness and marriage.

And, if you look at in a narrow sort of way, it is. But it is much more universal and grand than that.

In Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, Updike has created perhaps the archetype for a frail and morally uncertain protagonist. Rabbit is a former high-school basketball star who thinks his job is beneath him and his wife is too stupid and drunk to love. One night, he just runs away. He tries to drive as far away as possible but somehow winds up only on the other side of Mt. Judge in Brewer. There he takes up with a part-time prostitute ("hooer" in Rabbit's spelling) and thinks he's found a way to be happy.

Rabbit is selfish, and unbelievably unconcerned about the thoughts of others. He is preoccupied with his former greatness, and can not adjust to the fact that he seems unable to match it in any other endeavor. Eventually his selfishness will put off even the hooer. His attempt to reconstruct his former life, and his foolish idea that he knows how to improve it, lead up to a tragedy. Updike's prose, though distancing in parts due to over-written descriptiveness and run-on sentences, is near perfect as he traces the events of the tragic day through the lens of someone Rabbit has hurt deeply.

Rabbit's failure to appreciate that he is hurting people and bears responsibility for the tragic events he inspires is heartbreaking to read. Updike lays bear human ugliness in this story, managing to keep you hoping for a redemption you don't expect. The back-up characters are a spare set, drawn well if only in outline. Rabbit is counseled by both his former coach (a lecher who preaches fidelity) and his wife's minister (a sympathetic reverend with a less than perfect marriage of his own.) Rabbit's dealings with his own parents, as well as his wife's make for interesting reading, as Updike expertly weaves the unlikely psychology of forgiveness, acceptance, and blame.

Updike doesn't excuse, doesn't explain, and doesn't ennoble Rabbit's failings. Rabbit, Run presents a flawed person doing bad things and attempting feebly to convince himself he is doing the best he can. The novel is set in the suburbs of the late fifties, but that is a factor of the time and world in which it was written. Updike isn't writing with a vendetta against small-towns, he is dealing more broadly with humanity, especially with our ability to hurt one another beyond all reason. It is a brilliantly handled dramatization of simple but unanswerable human questions. For all that, it gets a 9.2 out of 10.

Next? I have the second Rabbit novel, Rabbit Redux, but I think I may take a break, since the next novel takes place a decade later. If I don't continue on with Rabbit, I have Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie.

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