Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Pennsylvania and Rabbit, Run by John Updike (1960)

Pennsylvania’s John Updike, as with New Hampshire’s Grace Metalious and Peyton Place, is another writer who has taken the places and people that he grew up surrounded by and has moulded them into a work of fiction. Thus, in 'Rabbit, Run' Reading in south-eastern Pennsylvania where Updike was born - the fifth most populous city in the state - becomes Brewer, and the borough of Mt. Penn becomes Mt. Judge, as does the nearby mountain peak after which it is named. The most famous landmark of Mt. Penn is the Pagoda Hotel, renamed in Updike’s fictional world as the Pinnacle Hotel, a Japanese-style novelty building built in 1908 which somehow managed to withstand anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II and now stands as a symbol of the city of Reading.

Updike described Reading as “a grand place—thriving downtown, factories pouring out smoke and textiles and steel and pretzels and beer. It was a town that made things. It was a muscular, semi-tough kind of place.” And likewise ‘Rabbit, Run’ is a tough, unsentimental book that I enjoyed much more so than The Witches of Eastwick (see Rhode Island). The story deals with 26-year old former high-school athletics star Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom who walks out on his dead-end job, his alcoholic pregnant wife and young son, and takes up with a prostitute. Updike makes no attempt to glamorise his protagonist or portray him as a Holden Caulfield-esque anti-hero, and the book was written as a response to On The Road in portraying the hurt that is brought to those around you if you try to walk away from your life. Updike is a writer who likes to beautify or poeticise the mundane, and whereas writers dealing with similar themes such as Fante or Bukowski could be seen as the anti-Updike, in that the simplicity of their prose (which I personally love) reflects the normalcy of the situations, Updike writes in a much weightier prose, which can be tortuous at times but is aided by the fluidness of the present tense - one of several well regarded, early usages of the style. Updike returned to the character of Rabbit in the sequels Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), Rabbit at Rest (1990), and Rabbit Remembered (2001). The book was also adapted into a little seen 1970 film starring James Caan as Rabbit and was also the key inspiration for the 2002 Eminem film 8 Mile (the screenplay opens with a quote from the film "If you have the guts to be yourself...other people'll pay your price," the main protagonist is nicknamed “Rabbit”, the film opens with the character moving in with his alcoholic mother after having dumped his pregnant girlfriend, and the last song on the soundtrack is called “Rabbit Run”).

Next: Delaware

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