It was very strange to hear of John Updike’s death when I was slap bang in the middle of reading Rabbit, Run. Written back in 1960 when Updike was at the start of his illustrious career, I had such a vibrant young man’s voice in my head it was almost impossible to imagine him stripped of that innocent belief in dependable immortality. Curious, also, to think of him facing up to the religious implications that carve, like a silvery thread of stream, through the rocky layered walls of his prose. But what has been most surprising of all has been the lukewarm quality of the tributes that have been paid him. Perhaps I’m visiting the wrong sites, but the praise has repeatedly been qualified, as if admitting to liking John Updike isn’t quite the thing to do any more. Like the judges on the Costa panel who pointed out all the faults of Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture after having just awarded it the best novel prize, it’s as if critics and readers don’t want to seem too enamoured of Updike, too accepting of the world he created for fear of looking… what, exactly? Naive? Misguided? It strikes me as very intriguing, not least because there is surely no question that Updike’s prose style is one of the most supple, lucid and effortlessly evocative of the great American twentieth century males, his dialogue fiercely entertaining, his characterization sharp and astute and his embrace of a certain kind of banal, ordinary existence so complete and perfect that to read his books is to live them. So what’s not to like?
The plot of Rabbit, Run is probably illuminating here. It’s the story of Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom, who was once upon a time a big shot star of the local basketball team. He has been cursed with a gilded youth, and so his failing marriage to his silly, permanently sloshed wife, Janice, and his mindless job demonstrating the MagiPeel Peeler seem to him pointless and worthless. So worthless, in fact, that within the first dozen or so pages of the novel, Rabbit has failed to pick up his two year old son, Nelson, as he’s been instructed, and has instead kept on driving with the vague intention of heading all the way down south. Rabbit hasn’t got a map, not so much a chance detail as a symbolic comment that will stand true for the entire length of the narrative, and all too often his instincts let him down. At some point in the middle of the night he accepts the inevitable and lets his car head for home. ‘Home’ in this instance being precisely not where his wife and child are, but where his old basketball coach, the unlovely Tothero, lives. This isn’t a mistake either; all Rabbit truly wants is to return to a place where he can still feel his former glory, and so Tothero’s charmless but nostalgic company is where he was headed all along. He just took the scenic route to get there. That evening, Tothero takes him out to dinner with his mistress and another young woman, Ruth, who is not exactly a prostitute, just a woman who hasn’t figured out the equation that balances love with housekeeping money. And Rabbit, effortlessly forgetting his pregnant wife, his child, his old, dull job, moves in with her that same night. That’s the kind of guy he is.
The story of Rabbit is distasteful, if you will. It concerns uneducated, vulgar people who haven’t the first idea how to find hard-won pleasure in their lives, but who cling, for the most part shipwrecked, to rather uncomfortable notions of respectability. Although not, of course, Rabbit, who is living so deep down within his flesh and its imperative needs that he doesn’t have the distance required to erect a moral framework. I wasn’t at all surprised to find out that Updike was deeply into Kierkegaard when he was writing this novel, as Rabbit seemed extraordinarily like a character out of a Camus novel to me. Rabbit, Run read like a transplantation of European philosophy into a very different system of blunt realism, a form of American existentialism that concerned a recognizable anti-hero, the lone, ostensibly immoral male, who is incapable of living by any other truth than his own. But Updike adds his own twist to this portrait by reintroducing God into the narrative. God has been a niggle in the back of Rabbit’s mind, the poorly understood but radiant promise of something better and more beautiful and perhaps necessary (although he’s not sure about that). Jack Eccles is the pastor who inserts himself into the rift between Rabbit and Janice with the well-intentioned and catastrophic desire to heal it. Eccles is a tremendous character, continually walking the tightrope between heroic intervention and dubious meddling, not sure himself, really, quite what he thinks he’s doing and deeply annoying his wife with his devotion to the job that seems to go beyond caring concern to something a little unhealthy. It’s a clever move by Updike to make Eccles and Rabbit resemble one another by the end, in their dedication to their separate causes, and their shameless neglect of the womenfolk. In this novel, the men are all catapulted towards some distant, unarticulated ideal, while the women have to stay home with the mess of domesticity. But this is the sixties, so what else would you expect?
And it really is the sixties in Rabbit, Run, brought to life on every exquisitely written page. Updike is brilliant at descriptions and even more brilliant at creating a feel of the times, an atmosphere that saturates every sentence without being located in any particular word. I’ve only read a few Updike novels, but they have all had this chameleon quality, of being able to bring to mind not just a situation, but a whole, distinct era. Reading Rabbit, Run, I wondered when we’d got so prissy about our characters that they have to be fundamentally nice people. Only detective fiction allows its protagonists to be fatally flawed these days, and even then, it has to be in ways that arouse our pity. Updike comes from a sterner school; he doesn’t want a narrative awash with sentimentality. He wants a sharper, more acidic response from the reader, a pure, raw horror, at times, for Rabbit’s appalling behaviour, and also, a clear-eyed, if rueful acceptance that we are all flawed, that we all act with ugly self-serving gestures when life is brutal and unrewarding. Updike’s characters come from a time before self-awareness was essential to literary identity, and so they ask neither forgiveness nor understanding for who they are. Instead, this is car crash reading, as we watch each member of the cast add their weight to a balance that will eventually tip into tragedy. And this, I felt, was at the heart of Updike’s endeavour in the novel, to show how even dull and lowly lives could be subject to the most powerful of forces. If sex and religion come up a lot in Updike’s work, it’s because the former provides the most intransigent drive of the body, whilst the latter exerts the purest pull over the mind. And that, Updike insists, is where the conflict that fuels all narrative finds its origins, in the opposing magnetic forces that work on the mind and the body.
Rabbit, Run is not in keeping with modern styles of narrative, but that doesn’t necessarily make it old-fashioned; at the very least, Updike provides a masterclass in literary realism. It’s true that he doesn’t always appeal to his readers, he doesn’t fight to keep us, as we now consider authors must, and he doesn’t provide comfortable, or even palatable truths for us to digest. But that still leaves him with a great deal to say, all of it now a tremendous legacy to the literature of the modern Western world.