Rabbit, Run, John Updike, Alfred A Knopf, 1960, 309 pp
John Updike's second novel definitely has the feel and sound of a new decade in literature. Getting through my 1959 reading list was such a slog but 1960 so far has been enjoyable with strong signs that a sort of literary tipping point had been reached.
Novels from the 1950s such as Peyton Place, Lady Chatterley's Lover, and Lolita, gave evidence that cultural taboos against writing about sex were loosening. In Rabbit, Run Updike raised the bar. Rabbit Angstrom's sexual thoughts and encounters are fully described.
Disillusion with a proscribed middle class world of dull work in offices and social climbing at home, which I read about in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Revolutionary Road, Saul Bellow's early novels and others, explodes in this account of one man's boredom and frustration and longing for escape. Rabbit, with his conflicted sense of responsibility, of moral rights and wrongs, is so far from the earnest, upright sort of hero found in the first half of the century. As I read, I kept thinking of modern male characters such as Chip Lambert in The Corrections.
The writing is exciting but polished at the same time. Updike spent some years writing stories and columns for "The New Yorker" and that influence shows. He veers from finely crafted sentences and descriptions to terse bursts of words when relaying Rabbit's actions, but it is all balanced nicely.
The biggest surprise to me was the religious angle. Rabbit, after deserting his pregnant wife and young son, is approached by the wife's family minister who endeavors to bring the couple back together. There is a satiric tone to their interactions on a par with Muriel Spark. At the same time, both grapple with faith and sin in passages that sound like Graham Greene.
Except for his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, which I read 10 years ago, I have not read John Updike before. I just always heard about him and his Rabbit novels. It seemed to me he was either revered or reviled, usually because of the sex, and I would get him confused with Philip Roth. Well, nothing beats actually reading the books.
(Rabbit, Run is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)