November 2009

Rabbit, Run is the first book in the enigmatically named ‘Rabbit’ tetralogy by John Updike. It transpires that Rabbit is the nickname of Harry Angstrom, who begins his literary life as a 26-year old ex-basketball star locked in a dead-end marriage with an alcoholic wife, a toddler and another baby on the way. It is 1959 in Brewer, Pennsylvania.

Harry’s talent and touch live on through his fingertips, now only used to demonstrate a ‘Magi Peel’ peeler at the local store. Visions of past glory filter through his brain when he joins local kids in an impromptu street game, Returning home he finds his pregnant wife drinking in front of the TV, the apartment a mess and his young son at his mother’s. Something snaps and Rabbit, ostensibly going to collect his son, gets in the car and just drives out of town. We begin to understand how he earned his nickname – he is a creature of impulse who bounds erratically through life without much thought to the consequences of his actions.

Heading for Florida he drives through the night but by the time he gets to West Virginia he changes his mind and turns round. Back in Brewer, he looks up his old high-school basketball coach (an inveterate letch), who introduces him to part-time prostitute, Ruth, He immediately moves in with her and we are given graphic details of Harry’s sexual exploits, which are mainly driven by his own selfish desires. He is completely oblivious to the family he has abandoned and it’s hard to feel much sympathy for him.

Enter Jack Eccles, Janice’s family pastor, who is determined to be the instrument of Harry’s redemption. Theirs is a relationship of mutual respect, albeit it tentative on Harry’s side. Through Jack we see the more human aspect of Harry’s nature and begin to understand his emotions and the innate panic that precipitates his actions. Eventually, with the new baby about to arrive, Jack persuades Harry that his duty is to his wife and Harry runs out on Ruth to return to Janice. However, when he has yet another row with her and stays out for the night, his actions have shocking consequences. In a progressively drunken stupor Janice decides to bath the baby and accidentally drowns her. This harrowing passage in the book is brilliantly narrated and left most of us gasping in horror.

This book polarised the group – some were repelled by the explicit language and by the emotional brutality of the main character. Others saw him as a young man who has lost his way, whose youthful training and success left him ill-equipped to deal with the mundane reality of everyday life. We celebrated Updike’s wonderful prose which elevates what could have been a rather tawdry tale into something quite special

We meet again on Thursday 10th December when we shall discuss Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant.

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