Banned Book Club: Rabbit, Run

Title: Rabbit, Run

Published: 1950

Author: John Updike

Challenge status: Pulitzer prize-winning author John Updike’s Rabbit, Run is #97 on Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, and frequent target of banning attempts (frequently challenged classics) according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #36 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.

Why: Labeled as obscenity (for sex scenes and promiscuity) and banned in Ireland (1962) by the Irish Board of Censors, but apparently was allowed into circulation in 1967.  This board, btw, apparently still exists – meets in secret BUT is required to review all submissions (some cheek whoever submitted a complaint regarding the Bible, in 1988). In the US, was challenged in Maine (1976) and Wyoming (1986) – the Maine students were allowed to read it if parents granted permission. (Well, the whole story felt remarkably like a field trip…)

First line: ”Boys are playing basketball around a telephone pole with a back-board bolted to it.”


John Updike is a fantastic writer. His protagonist Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is so unlikeable, though. I would have rather been re-reading The Witches of Eastwick. Or watching Eminem playing the role of Rabbit in 8-Mile. Pretty much a lot of other things I would have done w/that time, but, I finished it so let me tell you all about it.

Rabbit is a character that is all “id” and no shame. Nearly a sociopath in tendency. In some ways, he’s exactly what every moralistic movie tells us about the high school popular stud sports star: that in 10, 20, 30 years he’ll still be reliving his glory days, always looking back at the zenith of his life’s achievements. Mix that cocktail with the sort of dull disillusionment of a young man’s late 20’s, after following in lockstep exactly what his parents probably thought he ought to have done: graduated, maybe spent some time in the military or in college, get a job, get married have a kid…and live happily and predictably ever after.

“She doesn’t think after all she has it in her to throw up but stays there anyway because it pleases her, her bare arm resting on the icy porcelain lip; she grows used to the threat in her stomach, which doesn’t dissolve, which stays with her, so in her faint state it comes to seem that this thing that’s making her sick is some kind of friend.” – John Updike, “Rabbit, Run”

So this is Rabbit, he looks in the mirror at some point and realizes he’s set himself up nicely and succeeded — in buying into the All American Dream which is actually a trap. He has no idea of who he is, only who he was. He wants to live life on vacation. His trappings of success come with responsibilities attached – only now he’s not so interested in the responsibilities part. So he runs.

But he doesn’t run and become a new person. He runs around in circles. He comes to no great realizations. He just runs around the soft turf of his loved ones’ lives in an unrelenting set of laps, while wearing brutal cleats. He provides no closure, he changes his mind constantly, it’s exhausting  – and yet kind of impressive how glibly and unrepentant he is. And through it all he reminds himself and everyone around him of how great he is, because of how great he remembers being.

I can’t decide really what Updike means for us to takeaway from the book. I mean, while Rabbit is a real piece of work – as they say – the other characters don’t show much emotional or intellectual depth, either. It’s like being caught in one of those grim period movie dramas, set anywhere from the 50’s to the 70’s, where everyone is stuck in tiny grey subdivisions just outside of Stepford, all the characters are shrill and hysterical, and the only way out is through the Valley of the Dolls. Is that Updike’s thesis on contemporary reality? Pretty grim. And missing some of the flair and novelty of The Witches of Eastwick, which also concerned itself with suppression and release of impulses, but with more cleverness and possibility.

Another option, Rabbit is the anti-protagonist – a device used more recently and obviously in John Kennedy Toole‘s 1980 novel (posthumously published, Pulitzer prize winning) Confederacy of Dunces. Ignatius Reilly’s universe within New Orleans was more directly satirical, and his character’s bumbling results in hapless triumphs – whereas Rabbit’s triumphs are clearly in the past, his ricocheting path feels like an extended delay to something inevitable. Are the answers in the sequels? Do let me know. I’ll be watching Eminem battle it out: cuz there ain’t no such thing as halfway crooks.

What do you think?

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