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.