Running on empty: One young man wrestles with life decisions both big and small in Updike’s ‘Rabbit, Run’

September 3, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 3, 2013

Harry Angstrom is a man in nearly constant motion, yet he usually seems to be falling behind. The 26-year-old protagonist of Rabbit, Run, the 1960 John Updike novel, is a perpetual man-child: He has the body of an adult but the moral sensibilities and decision-making abilities of an adolescent.

When the book opens, Angstrom — Rabbit to his high-school classmates — is walking along an alley when he comes across six boys playing basketball. Although he is wearing a business suit, he joins in their game:

In a wordless shuffle two boys are delegated to be his. They stand the other four. Though from the start Rabbit handicaps himself by staying ten feet out from the basket, it is still unfair. Nobody bothers to keep score. The surly silence bothers him. The kids call monosyllables to each other but to him they don’t dare a word. As the game goes on he can feel them at his legs, getting hot and mad, trying to trip him, but their tongues are still held. He doesn’t want this respect, he wants tot tell them there’s nothing to getting old, it takes nothing. In ten minutes another boy goes to the other side, so it’s just Rabbit Angstrom and one kid standing five. This boy, still midget but already diffident with a kind of rangy ease, is the best of the six; he wears a knitted cap with a green pompon well down over his ears and level with his eyebrows, giving his head a cretinous look. He’s a natural. The way he moves sideways without taking any steps, gliding on a blessing: you can tell. The way he waits before he moves. With luck he’ll become in time a crack athlete in the high school; Rabbit knows the way. You climb up through the little grades and then get to the top and everybody cheers; with the sweat in your eyebrows you can’t see very well and the noise swirls around you and lifts you up, and then you’re out, not forgotten at first, just out, and it feels good and cool and free. You’re out, and sort of melt, and keep lifting, until you become like to these kids just one more piece of the sky of adult things that hangs over them in the town, a piece that for some queer reason has clouded and visited them. They’ve not forgotten him: worse, they never heard of him. Yet in his time Rabbit was famous through the county; in basketball in his junior year he set a B-league scoring record that in his senior year he broke with a record that was not broken until four years later, that is, four years ago.

He sinks shots one-handed, two-handed, underhanded, flat-footed, and out of the pivot, jump, and set. Flat and soft the ball lifts. That his touch still lives in his hands elates him. He feels liberated form long gloom. But his body is weighty and his breath grows short. It annoys him, that he gets winded. When the five kids not on his side begin to groan and act lazy, and a kid he accidentally knocks down gets up with a blurred face and walks away, Rabbit quits readily. “O.K.,” he says. “The old man’s going. Three cheers.”

To the boy on his side, the pompon, he adds, “So long, ace.” He feels grateful to the boy, who continued to watch him with disinterested admiration after the others grew sullen. Naturals know. It’s all in how it feels.

A few pages later, with all the forethought of a drop of water running downhill, Angstrom is driving out of his mountainside hometown and following the road east toward Philadelphia:

He accelerates. The growing complexity of lights threatens him. He is being drawn into Philadelphia. He hates Philadelphia. Dirtiest city in the world, they live on poisoned water, you can taste the chemicals. He wants to go south, down, down the map into orange groves and smoking rivers and barefoot women. It seems simple enough, drive all night through the dawn through the morning through the noon park on a beach take off your shoes and fall asleep by the Gulf of Mexico. Wake up with the stars above perfectly spaced in perfect health. But he is going east, the worst direction, into unhealth, soot, and stink, a smothering hole where you can’t move without killing somebody. Yet the highway sucks him on, and a sign says POTTSTOWN 2. He almost brakes. But then he thinks.

When Angstrom stops to gas up his car, it turns out he’s driven 40 meandering miles but only gotten 15 miles away from home. By the time his flight of fancy has come to an end, Rabbit winds up just a few blocks from his home despite having driven until dawn.

In this fashion, the opening section of Rabbit, Run sets the template for the remainder of the novel: Angstrom acts on impulse but thwarts himself through lack of forethought. He attempts to rectify past mistakes, but he can reverse his commitments in the wink of an eye. Indeed, by the time the book is done, Angstrom has walked out on his wife and his mistress a total of not once, not twice, but four times.

And yet Angstrom remains a compelling figure; he is surprisingly likeable at the same time his actions are contemptible. Both Angstrom’s paramour and his minister (along, I think, with many readers) are drawn to Angstrom almost despite himself. The thing is, as much of a mess as Rabbit makes of things, he never does so deliberately. The worst consequences of his callous desertions are arguably not even his fault.

Rabbit, Run is a very domestic drama: Angstrom deserts his wife and young son, shacks up with a call girl, makes friends with a minister and flirts with the minister’s wife. But while this deliberately paced book is often easier to admire than to love, Updike makes the reader experience the emotions along with his characters. The tragedy that follows one of Angstrom’s walkouts is genuinely shocking; so is the hugely offensive remark that Angstrom off-handedly makes after the ensuing rapprochement.

In a sense, Rabbit, Run is a puzzle: Both the reader and (perhaps to a lesser extent) Angstrom himself try to navigate away from the hazardous shoals on which Rabbit threatens to ground himself. But can Angstrom do the right thing, the moral thing, without sacrificing his own happiness? And, after a certain point, can he — or we — even objectively decide what the right thing to do is? Then, eventually, the question becomes whether he, and we, can even identify which action will cause the least amount of grief to Angstrom and everyone around him.

By the book’s end, Angstrom finds himself in circumstances that seem at once inevitable yet utterly avoidable; devastating, yet utterly beautiful.

Rabbit, Run is the first in a quartet of Updike books that traces most of the adult life of Harry Angstrom. I own a volume containing the first two novels, and I’ll be reading the sequel soon.

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