If it wasn’t for the postscript that John Updike follows the end of the novel with this would have been a slightly more difficult reading experience.
The central character, Rabbit, is in a harsh light a selfish underachieving loser who is chasing after a moment that he once had as a winner on the high school basketball team but is now gone for ever. He drags down with him his wife and his mistress and his parents and in-laws. He also managed to impact a local preacher who decides he is a worthy cause to help. When he is needed most he turns on his heels and runs, hence the title.
But in a more sympathetic light he is a man that has known the adulation of the crowds and tasted the success of victory and now struggles to find meaning in a relatively hollow existence.
His struggle is the same as his country with a nation that had tasted victory in the second world war and known the joys of mass production now starting to lose its way in the 1950s. This is a world that is frayed at the edges and tired. Characters like Rabbit’s former basketball coach, his mother-in-law and the preacher’s wife are all either physically suffering from ailments or just bitter with life.
As Rabbit wanders out of his marriage into a relationship with a woman he also gets pregnant before going back to be by his wife’s side during the birth of their second child he is never totally convincing. He has run once before and it always feels as if he might do so again. Perhaps this is stretching it too far but this sense of running off and looking for a way of attaining a sense of former glory is an allusion to things like the Korean War and of course late on Vietnam.
There is also a sense with the death of his baby daughter and the way Rabbit treats his marriage and relationships with most people that this is a society that doesn’t value much.
But there is also the question of religion. Rabbit seems to hold the Lutheran preacher in high regard and there is a certain tradition about the role of the church in life that doesn’t necessarily mean that it makes a difference but is something almost automatic. What is interesting is the way that Rabbit is hardly condemned by anyone of his own age but is criticised by his parents but it is perhaps a different generation with different values that is prepared to make that judgement.
When I told my father I was reading Updike he commented that he never liked his style and there is perhaps something to be said for that. There is a slightly detached narrative perspective that keeps neutral when perhaps other author’s might have voiced more condemnation.
As a metaphor for a period of American history Rabbit is of course just starting and the success of the character is something that will be established more I suspect by reading the other Rabbit novels. Right now as he ends by running off he is not necessarily a character you want to spend more time with, but I’m prepared to change my view of that.