Monday, July 4, 2011

#38 - "Rabbit, Run" by John Updike

After a good week of reading, I’ve finished Rabbit, Run by John Updike, my 38th read from The List. In many ways it was similar to number 37, The Sportswriter. Both novels follow men unsure of their place in the world, both trying to figure out where to go. But where The Sportswriter offers hope for the future, Rabbit, Run takes it away.

Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom lives a typical life in Brewer, Pennsylvania; a place that could double for Anytown, USA. In high school, he was a star basketball player and an important person. But that was eight years ago. Now, after a four-year hitch in the military, Angstrom is married to an alcoholic wife, has a three year old son, works selling the MagiPeeler kitchen gadget, and lives in a drab and dreary apartment. A life that isn’t uncommon for someone of his education.  But one day, feeling trapped, Harry decides he’s had enough and runs from his less than ideal life. He eventually finds minor comfort in the arms (and the apartment) of a prostitute, having abandoned his wife and son.

Rabbit, RunIn the beginning, Harry is a somewhat sympathetic character. His reasons for wanting a change are somewhat valid, and he successfully rationalizes his actions to the reader. In the beginning, it's easy to side with Harry Angstrom. But as his life continues to unravel, so does the reader's sympathy. Harry is not a hero; he's a young man who is too afraid to deal with the mess he's created. Running is his way of avoiding responsibility, confrontation, and reality, and it’s something he does over and over and over again.

Angstrom’s transition from hero to scoundrel is slow but consistent, and always had my attention. The more I got to know Harry, the more I came to realize he isn’t a very nice person, he isn’t very intelligent, and he isn’t anything special. He really is just an average man, whose life reached its zenith in high school, and he’s having trouble coping with that fact.

But what is the most interesting part of Harry Angstrom, is what he represents. I saw Harry as a stereotypical example of Middle America; a man who, in pursuit of the American dream, seemingly has everything a person of his age and ilk should: a wife, a child, a job, and a home. But while his life may resemble a window display at Macy’s at first glance, it’s devoid of anything behind that façade. There isn’t any joy in Harry’s life, nor that of his wife, and there certainly isn't any hope for a brighter future.  They are merely going through the motions, living a mundane existence of routine and depression. Harry finally realizes ‘the dream’ is actually a nightmare, and while he longs for the days when he was relevant, deep down he knows he’ll never be that star player again. And that is when Harry decides to run, because hopefully the grass will be greener on the other side. Hopefully, running will make everything better.

Rabbit, Run offers great commentary on American life that continues to be relevant today, while set in a time we look back on with the fondest of memories. Everything was supposed to be just swell in the 50’s; the people were nice, the economy was doing well, there was less crime, and people didn’t swear; it was all exactly as it appeared on ‘Leave it to Beaver.’ Of course the world was never that nice or that perfect, and there have always been people like Harry Angstrom. In reality, people can be unhappy, have affairs, failed marriages, and tragedies can occur, but literature usually focuses on those who get over their problems, not those who merely run from them.

Ultimately, it’s the realism of Harry Angstrom that made this such a great read. He truly is one of the great characters in literature; a real hall of famer.  Updike is able to create a character that is interesting and intriguing without being likeable.  It's no wonder Book magazine named him one of the top five greatest characters in fiction since 1900, a distinction I'm sure few would argue with.  Harry Angstrom is one of the most significant and complex characters in modern literature, whose life is told through four of the most highly regarded novels of the past 50 years, and told by one of the world’s most renowned story tellers. When the day comes that I’ve finally finished reading these 100 all-time novels, I’m sure the remaining three ‘Rabbit’ books, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest, will be at the top of my ‘to read’ list.

Listen to my CBC Eyeopener discussion of Rabbit, Run right here.

Time magazine's original review from November 7, 1960 can be found here.

My next book will by Cormac McCarthy's novel, Blood Meridian, I believe the only book resembling anything close to a Western on The List.  I know little about the book, but have heard it is one of his more violent stories.  Having seen the movie No Country for Old Men, I figure that says a lot.

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