A Plea for Un-Phenomenal Rewards

A Review of John Updike’s Rabbit, Run

What pimply-faced teenage wallflower hasn’t pondered the injustice that is athletic talent? As a former bump-on-a-bench, I can empathize. It seems that in 1974, I was next in line for my athletic talent when God put up the Next Teller sign and headed out to the Knicks game.

Thankfully, my life’s journey has leveled itself since the rope-climbing incident in gym class, but the same cannot be said for John Updike’s athletic main character, Harry Angstrom, in the 1960 novel Rabbit, Run.

The novel opens with Harry (a.k.a. Rabbit), a former high-school basketball phenom, rediscovering the ease with which he can drop a basketball through the rim, “…whipping the net with a ladylike whisper.” In eight years, he hasn’t lost his talent for the game. He’s also failed to develop any other quality that might help him to make the transition to un-phenomenal life.

Rabbit attempts to replace one ladylike whisper with another when he heads out in search of the worth he once felt on the court. His travels take him from Berks County, across the Mason Dixon Line, and back home, where he makes his most epic journey – the one in which he spirals downward into the bleakness of immorality. When an unspeakable tragedy tries to convince the reader that Rabbit must stop running, that he must finally submit to the safety that is ordinary living, he surprises everyone. It seems that when all Rabbit knows is winning, less-than-perfection is never an option. So he runs.

Banned in 1962 Ireland, Rabbit, Run also found itself uninvited in some U.S. sectors. Rabbit’s indiscretions were simply too much for Father-Knows-Best and Leave-it-to-Beaver fans. Prostitution, alcoholism, and profanity are just samplings of the scandalous activity that landed Rabbit on school boards’manure lists.

Times have undoubtedly changed. Today’s reader will take note of this novel’s dicey attributes, but might be more shocked at heels and dress shirts for mountain climbing and at women’s indifference toward hedge trimming.

Will I encourage children who are still entangled in their mothers’ apron strings to read this book? Not even from a body bag. However, I hope that one day, if my grandchildren are involved in organized sports, my adult children will crack it open. Its wisdom promises to span generations. In fact, it already has.

Athletes are more than collections of strained, surprised, and sometimes comical one-dimensional action shots on the sports page. They’re our kids, our heroes…or both. They deserve to be taught that someday their hands and their minds will go on to do other less-celebrated things (yes, even less celebrated than selling underwear or dual-surface grills).

Rabbit never learned to bear the burden of his exceptional talent. He mistook it for the definition of his life, when in actuality it was just another assignment to be completed…above and beyond the basic human experience.

We all know how fast and easily Rabbits can reproduce, so let’s stop it now. Our gifted children need to be directed toward ordinary, un-phenomenal life before the way back is too congested for travel. Unbridled applause can be deafening. As Rabbit teaches us, it can overpower the whisper of true contentedness. Let’s teach our kids to run hard on the court, but first, let’s teach them to walk away from it with conviction.


The Perfect Day for a Book Review

I finished reading Ray Harvey’s More and More unto the Perfect Day more than a year ago – for the third time. I had intended to write a review of the book immediately following each reading, but couldn’t gather my thoughts into a neat pile. Instead, I was left with crooked, overlapped, often torn conclusions of how the book had affected me. I have taken notes. I have made an outline in order to follow the storyline. I still find myself unable to write a standard type review, so instead, I’ll submit to my visceral reactions…as a human being; not as a writer, critic, or editor.


First, it pissed me off because it attempted to challenge the beliefs that I have held dear for the entirety of my 38 years. For this, I commend it. A religious man’s faith is tested. The pages where this occurred in real-time are now filled with dry gorges — valleys that were formed by the weight of my tears. Old tears.

Second, the crooked, yet parallel, line it draws with my own life had me looking over my shoulder with the turn of every page. From things as provocative and significant as sourceless anger and spontaneous illness to spooky similarities like Cherokee heritage, acne scars, stretch marks, the names and appearances of family members…I experienced what I would call a one-dimensional, reflective haunting.

Here’s where I stop counting and fall into what flirts with a search for words. This book reached deep within in me. I am a deer that is not yet dead, but being prematurely field-dressed due to her poacher’s anxiety, guilt…something. A hand grabs at my trachea, cuts off the air, and pulls downward, to a place outside my own body. This book has found places within me that have been injured. Some of them have been healed. Others are now bleeding.

I’m not a philosopher, and don’t wish to be. I’m not an intellectual, though I sometimes envy those who are. That’s why it’s so difficult to qualify how and why this book affected me so profoundly. I’m still not sure I understand all the material. Maybe I never will; maybe it’s not intended to be fully understood.

I have found myself wishing I had never read it. Yet, I have read it numerous times. I have attempted to rid my mind of the images it imparts. Yet, I revisit them and curl up into the places they have hollowed out for me. Its lyrical prose is like a song. Its imagery is dark, shapely, and at times, far too real.

Thank you, Mr. Harvey. I don’t know if you intended to do this to me, but it has been done. I doubt I will ever read another book like yours, but if one comes along, the will power to keep my hands off of it will have to be strong. Thank you for demonstrating how good literary fiction distracts the conscious mind while implanting belief systems into the subconscious and unconscious minds. You have reminded me why I love the written word and why I am addicted to its effects – even if those effects are those which I’d rather not endure.

I strongly recommend this book to anyone who is NOT impressed by predictability, pedestrian prose, shallow characters, and ignorance as an ultimate form of contentedness. If you fit the profile, hold on. There’s no telling how deep this one will take you.

My Heart is a Book

I’ve written more than one book review about Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, so doing that again and adding to the gargantuan web pile of reviews might be redundant, if not ridiculous. So instead, I’d like to share a bit of what I’ve learned about the author. I’ve been to two Zusak speaking engagements, one […]

Bright’s Passage: Slipping Toward Josh Ritter’s Light

After learning about Josh Ritter’s debut novel, Bright’s Passage, from a versatile blogger, I simply had to crack it open. I read comments like “lyrical allure” and couldn’t resist. I wasn’t disappointed. The eye and the mind slide through Ritter’s musical prose with ease, reserving plenty of room in the noggin for scene painting, theological wondering, and bittersweet […]

Adopting The Emperor’s Children, with Proviso

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In Chapter One of The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud, a concept is introduced using a reference to a sign in a grubby-looking NYC Chinese restaurant. The sign reads, “Our chef is very famous in London.” This serves as an utter admittance of the fact that things aren’t going well in the Big Apple. The irony is thick; so […]

A Critical New Year

I’ve been asked about my New Year’s Resolution. I generally never give this a decent thought until someone else brings it up (similar to my reactions to questions like, “Are you ready for Christmas?” or “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?”). I’ve always sort of scoffed at the molded system: a calendar devised by people […]

Truman Capote: Journalistic Sinner or Novelistic Saint?

In 1966, Truman Capote’s novel In Cold Blood was published. This creative account of Kansas’ 1959 Clutter murders instilled fear; it raised hackles — and even though it trampled on ethics and our basic comprehension of truth, it would tear open the earth and drop the seed for what we know today as creative non-fiction. […]