Saturday, February 5, 2011

Kill Rabbit

Harry Angstrom is a scumbag.

If you don't know who that is, you've never read "Rabbit, Run" by John Updike. I just finished it, and it motivated me enough to vent in this forlorn space of Internet about the main character.

Never before have I detested a protagonist in a book quite like Rabbit. Let's begin with a spoiler warning -- if you plan on ever reading this book, then read no further. We're venturing into spoiler waters.

In 2011, the theme of dull suburban stasis slowly suffocating life has been duly established again and again and again. This novel was published in 1960, when the topic was still fresh. It chronicles young Mr. Angstrom, a former high school basketball star with a young son and pregnant wife. He hates his job and his marriage and one night tries to drive off in the middle of the night.

He wants to run away from his life, but he has no idea what to run toward. However, this isn't a discussion of the themes in this book. Let me just list all the douchey things this character does throughout the book.

  • Sent to pick up his son, he instead takes his car south in an effort to abscond from all his responsibilities literally in the middle of the night. And he can't even do that right, getting lost in West Virginia and driving back to Pennsylvania.

  • He refuses to even contact his wife or parents and instead goes to his former basketball coach. Through the coach he meets a part-time prostitute. Mindful of my own 21st century sensibilities, I tried to overlook his caveman-ish treatment of this new woman he meets. Rabbit orders her around from the first second, and this being the 50s, the woman (named Ruth) only fights back slightly

  • He gets angry when he finds out she's slept with a former high school teammate of his. She's a prostitute. It comes with the territory.

  • Their first night together, he orders her to clean the make-up off her face. She doesn't do it enough to his satisfaction so he wipes it off for her.

  • He gets angry that she wants to use contraception.

  • He befriends an Episcopal minister, Jack Eccles. His first time in the house of man of God, he slaps the man's wife on the ass. She doesn't slap him in the face. She acts surprised, almost flattered. Oh, the 50s must have been fun.

  • So Rabbit has left his wife to take care of their young son. This would be embarrassing enough in 1958. But he doesn't even have the decency to run away to Florida or Minnesota. He stays right in town, living with a prostitute and cavorting around town. Intentionally or not, he rubs it in his wife's face and brings a heaping pile of shame on her and her family.

  • In a rage that his prostitute girlfriend has slept with other men, he forces her to fellate him, coaxing and prodding her like a five-year-old who wants candy in a supermarket. He gets his way.

  • His pregnant wife goes into labor. So our main character undergoes a revelation. He wants to be back with his wife. So he leaves Ruth in the middle of the night without a word. Oh, and she's pregnant, too.

  • Just days after the birth of his infant daughter, he's still preening at the minister's wife and hitting on her.

  • Again, just days after his wife has given birth, he desperately wants sex. She's not quite in the mood. He urges her to drink whiskey, saying it would help lessen her stress while in reality he just wants her drunk so she'd be more open to sex. Did I forget to mention his wife has a drinking problem?

  • He's lying in bed with his wife trying to make his moves. She resists. So while she's got his back to him, he tries some sodomy. She rightfully objects. He runs away, comes back and now wants sex right after birth? After months of cheating on her and rubbing it in her face? Of course, he doesn't like a woman talking to him like this. So what does he do? He walks out in the middle of the night and doesn't come home.

  • So now he's left his wife twice, and this time with a young son and an infant daughter, knowing the wife has a drinking problem. He never comes home that night, so the wife goes nutty. She has a few too many and ends up drowning the baby.

  • We find Rabbit was trying to get back with Ruth that night, but could not find her. So he just farts around all night. He finds out from Eccles what's happened. So he comes back, rightfully chastened.

  • If I was the wife's father, I'd fucking kill him. Instead, the family welcomes him to their home. He's heartbroken and feeling guilty. As he should. He accepts blame ...

  • ... Until the actual burial. Out of nowhere, he tells the gathered mourners that it's not his fault. He wasn't there. It was an accident and he knows his wife didn't mean it. Of course the wife is the one who killed the child, but he set her on the course. Anyway, he just starts running away from the funeral into the woods by the cemetery.

  • He shows up at Ruth's and tries to get back with her. She actually cusses him out real good, but even she allows an opening for them to get together if he divorces his wife. He says he will and tells her he'll go to the deli and get her a sandwich. What does he do instead? He runs away. Book ends.

I don't know if Updike wanted the reader to like Rabbit. He doesn't shy from showing how his actions affect others around him, but throughout the novel, Harry Angstrom's inner dreams and desire for freedom, for an elusive liberation, are fostered upon us. In most novels, the reader should empathize with the protagonist in some way.

Many literary critics hail this character as a fighter against the sterility of modern life. As a man of inspiration, courageous enough to chase a true, fulfilling life.

But any logical reading of this character's actions should only include the words "world-class asshole" and "piece of rodent excrement."

I really hated him. The indignant way he hoists himself upon everyone. His narcissism. He self-centered-ness. His complete, earth-consuming cowardice. I hate him so much I blogged about a book written 50 years ago. He's not fighting suburbia. Unless you're a single billionaire, you will lead a rather monotonous life. That's how it goes. You will do tomorrow what you did yesterday, for the most part. Your "new and improved" life will grow to resemble your old one, and then what happens? Run away again and start the whole process again?

And I'm supposed to root this guy on? He shamed his wife, abandoned his son and infant daughter, abandoned his new girlfriend, abandoned his wife again and played a big hand in the death of a child. A protagonist for sure. A hero, not a chance.

There are more books in the Rabbit series. The second one is "Rabbit Redux." I probably won't read it. Tough to read a series on a man of no redeeming value whatsoever. I can't even hate him as a great villain because he's not written in that manner. But in a perfect world, the series would have ended at book No. 2 -- "Rabbit, Run Over by a Car."

No comments:

Post a Comment