Monday, March 18, 2013

In Which the Ping of a Basketball Changes My Life Forever: John Updike's Rabbit, Run

Today marks what would have been John Updike's 81st birthday.  In honor of the occasion, I thought I'd share this essay which originally appeared in the When We Fell In Love series at Three Guys One Book.

In 1980, I was ready for John Updike.  I didn’t know it at the time, but my childhood was about to vanish with the single bounce of a ball on a city street in Pennsylvania.  I can trace the divide between Boy-Me and Man-Me to that solitary ping vibrating from the hollow air inside a basketball as Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom barged uninvited into a pick-up game on his way home from work.

It was a spring afternoon.  I sat in the third row of my English class, a windowless room filled with the insect-buzz of fluorescent lights.  I was 16 years old and I gripped a yellowed, musty paperback of Updike’s Rabbit, Run in my hands.
Boys are playing basketball around a telephone pole with a backboard bolted to it. Legs, 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, though he's twenty-six and six three. So tall, he seems an unlikely rabbit, but the breadth of white face, the pallor of his blue irises, and a nervous flutter under his brief nose as he stabs a cigarette into his mouth partially explain the nickname, which was given to him when he too was a boy. He stands there thinking, the kids keep coming, they keep crowding you up.
I saw myself in duplicate on the page: at 16, I was one of those kids passing the ball back and forth; but yet I identified with the man in the business suit (at 26, an ancient adult from my perspective).  I externalized the boys, my peers, and internalized Rabbit, the adult I was yet to become.  I stood on the divide between them.

I looked around the classroom.  Some of the other students were reading their own books, but others were scratching initials on their desks with the tips of penknives or playing with the ends of their hair, bored and waiting for the bell to ring.  I was alone with my Updike.

On this day I first met Rabbit, I was a high school junior enrolled in an honors English class, one of those self-designed lit courses where advanced students get to pick their own novels. My classmates chose such literary classics as The Outsiders, Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Love Story.  For whatever reason, I picked up Rabbit, Run by some guy I’d never heard of before. Maybe I thought it was like that Watership Down book or maybe I was going through a Trix cereal phase...I don't know.

What I do know is that I was holding in my hands a new kind of novel, a book that burned with sex and cynicism and moral decay—all elements of the adult world I was about to enter, but which were indistinct through the fog of childhood that still clung to me.

I was a sheltered, naïve kid with few friends.  I liked to hang out in my bedroom and read Hardy Boys mysteries and the prairie sagas of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  My favorite TV shows at the time were The Waltons and The Andy Griffith Show, fantasies of a grown-up Pleasantville that never existed outside a cathode ray tube.  Even in my late teens, I still burrowed deep in my simple, uncorrupted life—sex and alcohol and cigarettes were still two years in my future when I would taste the world at college.  At the time, I still listened to Barry Manilow, fer Chrissakes.

Then came Rabbit.

In those first pages of the novel, he watches the street game of roundball for a few minutes, feeling the tug of the sport from when he was a star player on his school’s team.  Now he is a man in a business suit who sells MagiPeel kitchen gadgets to five-and-dime stores.  As he stands there, the ball rebounds over the heads of the players and he catches it with lithe quickness.
     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 was not aimed there. It drops into the circle of the rim, whipping the net with a ladylike whisper. "Hey!" he shouts in pride.
     "Luck," one of the kids says.
     "Skill," he answers, and asks, "Hey. O.K. if I play?"
     There is no response, just puzzled silly looks swapped. Rabbit takes off his coat, folds it nicely, and rests it on a clean ashcan lid.
From one side of the divide I now straddled, I read how this adult tried to force his way back to his youth but found the way blocked by the surly boys who resent his intrusion.  They don’t look at him, they don’t speak to him, they barely pass him the ball.  As Rabbit plays, Updike writes, “he wants to tell them there's nothing to getting old, it takes nothing.”

There it was. I was about to slide into adulthood and the transition would be seamless, invisible, the ground crumbling under my feet as I walked along the cliff’s edge.  It was time to turn off Andy Griffith and shelve The Little House on the Prairie.  This was when I needed to bend down and lace up my shoes and start off into the world spreading wide before me.  I would run to meet it.  Ah, I would run, run, run.


  1. That is a freaking great opening passage. I remember coming upon it (much later in life) after reading howevermany indifferent books in a row and thinking, I am in the hands of a master. (But I next tried THE CENTAUR and got nowhere.)

  2. Wow, great piece...gotta go read some Updike now...