Monday, July 05, 2010

Book Review: Rabbit, Run

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

I feel bad for putting this book off for so long. If only someone would have told me how good it was, how sentences would jump off the page, nailing emotions, confusions, context. Not to say the book doesn't have it's faults (it does), but I do wish I'd have read this some time ago.

I had read the first few pages a half-a-dozen times, and despite the sharpness of the writing in the first few paragraphs I always chose another book to read instead. I only had to get past those first few pages, past Rabbit's pick-up basketball game and his run home, to his home and wife and dissatisfaction with both, to the drive and I was hooked.

He drives through the thickening night. The road unravels with infuriating slowness, its black wall wearilessly rising in front of his headlights no matter how they twist. The tar sucks his tires. He realizes that the heat on his cheeks is anger; he has been angry ever since he left that diner full of mermaids. So angry his cheeks feel parched inside his mouth and his notstrils water. He grinds his foot down as if to squash this snake of a road, and nearly loses the car on a curve, as the two right wheels fall captive to the dirt shoulder. He brings them back but keeps the speedometer needle to the right of the legal limit.

He turns off the radio; its music no longer seems a river he is riding down but instead speaks with the voice of the cities and brushes his head with slippery hands. Yet into the silence that results he refuses to let thoughts come. He doesn't want to think, he wants to fall asleep and wake up pillowed by sand. How stupid, how frigging, fucking stupid he was, not to be farther than this. At midnight, the night half gone.

I hadn't expected this. I hadn't expected the run, right in the beginning, with narration so close and free-flowing. And then Rabbit turns out to be so exhasperating and simple. Always doing what he shouldn't do, but with no real good reason for it. Sure, he had been frustrated at home, but his initial flight was on a whim. There was no reason in it, and worse, he turns around and heads back. But does he go home? No. And this is the way it goes for the length of the novel.

Where the novel runs into trouble, besides the meandering, the pick-ups and drop-offs of motivation and reason, is when suddenly we leap from Rabbit's mind to the mind of others. It tends to happen for good reason, but I find it troubling to enter another character's mind halfway through the novel after being firmly established elsewhere. Yet, when Updike does this, he lets nothing fail (another long quote follows--my apologies).

Nelson's face turns up toward the porch and he tries to explain, "Pilly have--Pilly--" But just trying to describe the injustice gives it unbearable force, and as if struck from behind he totters forward and slaps the thief's chest and receives a mild shove that makes him sit on the ground. He rolls on his stomach and spins in the grass, revolved by his own incoherent kicking. Eccles' heart seems to twist with the child's body: he knows so well the propulsive power of a wrong, the way the mind batters against it and each futile blow sucks the air emptier until it seems the whole frame of bone must burst in a universe that can be such a vaccuum.

"The boy's taken his truck," he tells Mrs. Springer.

"Well let him get it himself," she says. "He must learn. I can't be getting up on these legs and running outside every minute; they've been at it like that all afternoon."

"Billy." The boy looks up in surprise toward Eccles' male voice. "Give it back." Billy considers this new evidence and and hesitates indeterminately. "Now, please." Convinced, Billy walks over and pedantically drops the toy on his sobbing playmate's head.

The new pain starts fresh grief in Nelson's throat, but seeing the truck on the grass beside his face chokes him. It takes him a moment to realize that the cause of his anguish is removed and another moment to rein the emotion in his body. His great dry gasps as he rounds these corners seem to heave the sheet of trimmed grass and the sunshine itself. A wasp bumping persistently against the screen dips and the aluminum chair under Eccles threatens to buckle; as if the wide world is participating in Nelson's readjustment.

The brilliance is everwhere in this novel, despite the way it bumps along at times, infuriating in its twists and the impending tragedy. You know that things must truly fall apart for Rabbit, and you know that he may learn nothing from it. And you wish he'd have kept driving south to the beach and avoided all of this.

Again, I wish I'd have read this sooner. There is so much to learn from the way Updike captures emotion, the way his close third-person narration takes you behind the scenes. You are not a witness to the thoughts of the character, but you experience what he experiences. Makes me wish I'd have really seen the brilliance in the writing workshop staple "A&P" and read more Updike sooner.

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