The space of six feet or so that each double house rises above its neighbor contains two wan windows, wide-spaced like the eyes of an animal, and is covered with composition shingling varying in color from bruise to dung.
That one sentence paints a dismal picture, doesn't it? Crowded, dead, dominating-and-dominated, sick, stupid, beat-up, and dirty. "Bruise to dung" is a little heavy-handed, sure, but I had to know to what end this bleak prose was heading.
My short analysis: don't bother.
Harry Angstrom (hinting both that he's angtsy and that he's a, figuratively speaking, small man), nicknamed Rabbit, was a star high school basketball player, but at age 26 he finds himself mediocre at the rest of his life. He's fed up by his crummy house, his screaming kid, and Janice (his drunk and pregnant wife), so he leaves one night intending to drive to south until he finds a sunny beach. He gets lost and ends up in West Virginia before turning back.
He crashes with his old basketball coach, who takes him for a night on the town with a couple young ladies. Harry goes home with one, Ruth, who has been turning tricks to pay the rent. He moves in with her and lives with her for a while. Meanwhile, the pastor at his wife's church, Jack Eccles (get it? Eccles?) tries to convince Harry to return to his wife by getting him a job gardening for an old widow and by playing golf with him once a week. Sometimes, when Harry visits Jack's home, he likes to flirt outrageously with the minister's wife, Lucy, who, Harry thinks, obviously wants a piece of him.
Harry eventually gets disgusted with Ruth, who is pregnant but hasn't told him so, and leaves her to return to his wife when he is informed that his wife is having in labor at the hospital. Everyone seems to forgive Harry and he looks forward to rebuilding his life with Janice. This feeling lasts for about a week. He comes home randy one day, and all his advances spurned by his wife, he decides he's fed up and leaves, going out to look for Ruth. His wife Janice is distraught to think that she's lost him again and takes to drinking. Horrible tragedy ensues.
At first it looks like Harry might face the consequences, but instead he runs again, literally into the woods, to escape. Midway through the novel, Jack Eccles describes Harry rather accurately: "The truth is, you're monstrously selfish. You're a coward. You don't care about right or wrong; you worship nothing except your own worst instincts."
The book is unrelentingly dark. The characters are thoroughly unsypathetic. Harry Angstrom is supposedly a small town American Everyman: mediocre and fed-up with his lot in life, looking for meaning and not finding it, and willing to step on others to make himself feel better. And while reviewers on Amazon.com are calling it America's The Stranger, I just don't see it. Other readers claim that Updike's prose carries you through the dismal tale, but I honestly put it down for weeks at a time, only returning because I was convinced that there must be some reason for this book's critical acclaim.
The thing that really amazes me, though, is that Updike successfully turned this into a series. I ask myself, how can anyone have read Rabbit, Run and felt themselves invested enough in the characters or the story to bother to pick up and read Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest? No wonder Updike spaced the novels about 10 years apart: he needed time for the readers to forget how repugnant all of the characters are.
One part that struck me as particularly interesting is when Harry visits the hospital when Janice is having her baby. In the waiting room, he thinks he recognizes an older woman. She recognizes him and introduces herself: she is Tothero's wife. Tothero, Harry's old basketball coach, has had a stroke and is in the hospital. Harry visits, but the man's tongue is flopping about and cannot comunicate even that he realizes that Harry is there. Later, after the tragedy, Tothero visits Harry and says he warned him. "Don't you remember? My begging you to go back?" When, in fact, Tothero called Janice "a little mutt" and took Harry out on a double-date with Margaret and Ruth, who turn out to be a couple of prostitutes.
If he gave Harry any advice at all, it was "Do what the heart commands. The heart is our only guide." Does he mean "do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law"? Or, if he means it otherwise, interspersed with calling women apes and Janice a mutt, how can he be taken seriously?
Another interesting scene is when the Jack Eccles meets with the Angstrom's Luthern minister, the imposing German Fritz Kruppenbach.