Thursday, January 28, 2016

John Updike's Rabbit, Run

Do me a favor.  Stop reading this ridiculous blog and think for a moment about the last book to stick with you long after you read it.

All set?  Good, now continue reading this ridiculous blog.  What about this book made it stick with you?  Was it the richly realized details of the story?  Did you relate to the story or characters in any way?  Was it the style of writing that grabbed you?

For me, the book that comes to mind is Rabbit, Run by John Updike.  I read it last fall and now, several months later, I still find myself thinking back to the events of this book.  The title was what originally grabbed me, for obvious reasons, but now it's the amazing writing that I can't shake.

Written in 1960, the book details a few months in the life of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a 26-year-old former high school basketball star who continually runs from his problems.  This book spawned many sequels, two of which won the Pullitzer Prize for fiction.

My habit last fall was to wake up at 4am, then read on the couch for an hour with cup of tea in hand before heading out to run anywhere from 5 to ten miles.  This is one of the books I read during those dark morning hours alone downstairs, and one that I reflected on during the long hard miles on the roads afterwards.

In the following passage, Rabbit has abandoned his wife for the second time shortly after the birth of their daughter.  Distraught over his departure, his wife, who has long flirted with alcoholism, proceeds to drink too much whiskey while trying to give their newborn baby a bath:

"The wavery gray line of the water is almost up to the lip of the tub.  On the skin quick wrinkles wander and under it a deep mass waits colorless.  She wishes she could have the bath.  Brimful of composure she returns to the living room.  She tips too much trying to dig the tiny rubbery thing out of the chair so she drops to her knees and scoops Rebecca into her arms and carries her into the bathroom held sideways against her breasts.  She is proud to be carrying this to completion; at least the baby will be clean when Mother comes.  She drops gently to her knees by the big calm tub and does not expect her sleeves to be soaked.  The water wraps around her forearms like two huge hands; under her eyes the pink baby sinks down like a gray stone. 
With a sob of protest she grapples for the child but the water pushes up at her hands, her bathrobe tends to float, and the slippery thing squirms in the sudden opacity.  She has a hold, feels a heartbeat on her thumb, and then loses it, and the skin of the water leaps with pale refracted oblongs that she can't seize the solid of; it is only a moment, but a moment dragged out in a thicker time.  Then she has Becky squeezed in her hands and it is all right.
She lifts the living thing into the air and hugs it against her sopping chest.  Water pours off them onto the bathroom tiles.  The little weightless body flops against her neck and a quick look of relief at the baby's face gives a fantastic clotted impression.  A contorted memory of how they give artificial respiration pumps Janice's cold wet arms in frantic rhythmic hugs; under her clenched lids great scarlet prayers arise, wordless, monotonous, and she seems to be clasping the knees of a vast third person whose name, Father, Father, beats against her head like physical blows.  Though her wild heart bathes the universe in red, no spark kindles in the space between her arms; for all of her pouring prayers she doesn't feel the faintest tremor of an answer in the darkness against her.  Her sense of the third person with them widens enormously, and she knows, knows, while knocks sound at the door, that the worst thing that has ever happened to any woman in the world has happened to her."

The book was magnificent, but it's this passage that really takes it home.  Never before in my life have I been so thoroughly punched in the soul by a piece of writing.  The heartbreaking imagery of a woman manically clinging to hope, and the torture of acceptance that she faces at the end, and the morbid thought of what it would be like to be in her situation and lose my son... Let's just say I was moved.

The day I start writing like that is the day I may just give up writing altogether, because I want to go out on top.

Enjoy the book recommendation, folks.  Now I'm off to read the ten sequels.

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