The Rise and Fall of American Dreams: On John Updike’s “Rabbit, Run”

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Americans are familiar with the trials and tribulations of success and failure.   We see failure and success all around us. But when we see the rise and fall of American dreams, we often don’t think about ourselves. It’s taken as commonplace that at a certain point in life people either give up on their dreams, move on to new ones…or to none at all.   The link between one possibility or another is to be found in the figure of movement.  Americans like to move and know that traveling to another place may provide solace in the face of the void that opens up when one’s dreams dissolve into thin air. But that’s the point. Movement can help us to forget the loss and to somehow outrun it.   The blind hope is that if one moves fast enough, one can escape the realization that he or she has failed and that life has passed one by.

But fiction allows us to pay closer attention to this process and allows the us to ask ourselves whether we are also caught up in flights. Fiction gives us time to think about our movements and our need to escape.   What makes the loss most intriguing for readers is when the person who experiences such loss is not fully aware of it or…the implications.   Blindness is painful for the reader and the subject’s blindness informs many narratives (whether in fiction or religion) throughout history.  The experience of an American losing his dream, grappling with present circumstances, and slowly realizing his loss informs the central arc of John Updike’s Rabbit, Run.

The book starts off with the main character, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom’s flight to a basketball court and a group of children.   He is the odd one out. Rabbit is much older than them, but he tries, by way of his movements, to come closer the children. The main point is that this is the world that gave him his childhood dreams. It’s a world where movements in space can make one forget about the world:

Boys are playing basketball around a telephone pole with a backboard bolted to it. Leg’s, shouts. The scrape and snap of Keds on loose alley pebbles seems to catapult their voices high into the moist March air blue above the wires.   Rabbit Angstrom, coming up the alley in a business suit, stops and watches, coming up the alley in his business suit, stops and watches, thought he’s twenty-six and six three. So tall, he seems the unlikely rabbit…He stands up thinking, the kids keep coming, they keep crowding up on you. His standing there makes the real boys feel strange. (3)

The words “real boys” disclose the narrator’s intent which is to show that Rabbit acts “as if” he is boy in front of them. He acts “as if” he is one of them.   But they want none of it:

They’re doing this for themselves, not as a show for some adult walking around in a double-breasted cocoa suit. It seems funny to them, an adult walking up the alley. Where’s his car? (3)

When Rabbit gets the ball after it “leaps over the kids heads”(due to a shot that hits the rim), the narrator gives a detailed description of Rabbit’s movements:

The cuticle moons on his fingernails are big. Then the ball seems to ride up the right lapel of his coat and comes off his shoulder as his knees dip down, and it appears the ball will miss because though he shot from an angle the ball is not going toward the backboard. It’s not aimed there. It drops the circle of the rim, whipping the net with a ladylike whisper. “Hey!” he shouts in pride. (4)

The ball is aimed toward the sky and he makes the shot. Although the boys are hesitant and say its “luck,” he says it is “skill.” And he goes on to play and shoot more. He notices a boy amongst them who is a great player and the narrator takes note. But he also takes note of how the kid, like Rabbit, will become a star but then lose his luster and become anonymous:

He’s a natural. The way he moves sideways without taking any steps, gliding on a blessing: you can tell. The way he waits before he moves. With luck he’ll become in time a crack athlete in high school; Rabbit knows the way. You climb your way through the little grades and then get to the top and everyone cheers…and then you’re out, not forgotten at first, just out, and it feels good and cool and free. You’re out, and sort of melt, and keep lifting, until you become like to these kids just one more piece of the sky of adults that hangs over them in the town….They’ve not forgotten him: worse, they never heard of him. (5)

What Updike manages to do in this passage is to show the contradictions at the heart of the American dream.   It may lift you up but at a certain point you may have to realize that you’re just one-in-a-million. But, to be sure, the struggle between being someone and being no-one is at the core of modernist art, literature, and philosophy. The question we have, as readers, is how Rabbit deals with his sinking into insignificance. Will he give up, will he try to be someone, or will he just…run away? Will he hurt people along the way?

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