This is a funny, sometimes sad but curious and entertaining story about a young man of twenty-six who is finding it hard to grow up. Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom is in his mid twenties and has yet to get over his high school success as a basketball star. He has a little boy, Nelson and a pregnant wife, Janice. He has a boring low paying job as a salesman and lives in a tiny apartment. His income is subsidized by his wealthy in-laws who have spoiled Janice, their only daughter. The story begins with Harry walking home from work on a particularly warm evening and intruding his way into a basketball game being played by a group of fourteen year olds. He revels in the movement of his body and the response of the ball as he dominates the game not having the self-awareness to see that his domination derives from the fact he is bigger and stronger than the young boys he is playing with. For a brief time Harry is transported back to his days of glory but then continues home to his wife who is drunk, detached and distant. Later, sitting in his car he gets the whimsical urge to run away. He becomes lost in the back roads of Pennsylvania and near dawn retraces his route to his hometown of Brewer. Instead of going back to his apartment he seeks out his old basketball coach Marty. Marty gives him a place to stay while encouraging him to reconcile with his wife. He introduces Harry to Ruth, a sort of casual, part-time prostitute who invites him to stay with her. …and so the story meanders.
Harry is disappointed with his marriage and his life. Yet Harry is more of a reactive type and does not act to improve his situation but lets the world push him forward into the unknown. He is caught up in his biology and the demands of desire. He eventually has a falling out with Ruth on an occasion when he is cruel to her. His world crumbles and he never figures things out. The story includes a Reverend Eccles who takes on Harry as a sort of project to try and get him back with his wife and family and build some structure into his life. He does this by coming up with the idea of playing golf with Harry so they have the opportunity to talk. Harry is distracted by the pastor’s attractive wife and thinks she is trying to seduce him and interprets her dislike of him to be unrequited lust. This is an amusing book in places because Harry is a very odd duck.
John Updike is a careful writer whose words piece themselve together like petit point. When you step back there is tapestry. So for example when Reverend Eccles finds a job for Harry working in the expansive garden of a widowed Mrs. Smith the author easily introduces a beautiful collection phrases:
“The flowerbeds, bordered with bricks buried diagonally, are pierced by red dull spikes that will be peonies and the earth itself , scumbled, stone-flecked, horny, raggedly patched with damp and dry, looks like the oldest and smells like the newest thing under Heaven.”
I had to look up the scumbled. It is a word from the art world meaning a sort of light clear coating that goes over a painting. The description is lovely, even the mention of peony spikes that I know well from my own garden. In the same paragraph there are other exquisite phrases: “rivulets running brokenly”, “ shaggy golden suds of blooming forsythia” and “oak leaves shed in the dark privacy of winter”. I love them.
I went from disliking Harry Rabbit Angstrom to cheering for him or at least wishing him well. I have had the urge to run away from home myself from time to time. I imagine relocating to southern France before anyone knew I was missing and then sending an e-mail home saying that I was trying to discover my potential and that I would be back when my money ran out. That is just a fantasy but I hold it in reserve.