(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

The quality distinguishing John Updike’s fiction and putting him in the front rank of novelists at an unusually young age is his ability to “get into” his characters, to experience their palpable worlds as they experience them, and to convey these experiences in prose that is at once rich and translucent. He is in that stream of post-Realism that conceives life as it is broadly and inclusively, that finds in the ordinary enough of the extraordinary to excite the poetic imagination without forsaking thorough grounding in quotidian reality. Beyond this, faint but perceptible, is a tough intellectual and religious concern for values, appearing in his fiction not so much as the assertion of one given value system or the other but rather as a constant probing of conflicts of evaluation as these arise in tangible experience.

So much is Updike a novelist of experience and its normative repercussions that a plot precis as such can be misleading; Updike is concerned with experience in its fullness and not events in their succession, and what happens in his fiction is not mirrored accurately by a historical timetable. This is not to say that Updike’s fiction is the fiction of pure sensibility. Updike—partly by means of a perspective maintained carefully by an empathizing yet detached narrator—is concerned with experience: not simply what happens or what a character feels, but with the whole complex of interactions among events, perception, emotion, and reflection that makes up experience.

With these qualifications of plot in mind, the action of RABBIT, RUN can be summarized. Harry Angstrom, nicknamed “Rabbit,” was once an extraordinary high school basketball player. He is now, at age twenty-six, a salesman of a household gimmick, “Magipeel.” He has a mousy, somewhat alcoholic, pregnant wife, Janice, and a small son, Nelson. On a spring afternoon Rabbit, full of the energy of the season, stops to play basketball with a group of teenage boys. In the game, in the memories it brings to him, and in the air, there is a promise of life. At home, however, he finds his wife drinking and watching a children’s television program; she has made a stupid purchase; and she has left their son at his parents’ house and their car at hers. Rabbit goes to collect these, but, when he gets to his parents’ house, he gives in to a sudden impulse to run away. He picks up the car and begins to drive, feeling furtive, never quite free, even though he drives all the way into West Virginia; finally, for no special reason except that he does not feel the freedom he had hoped for, he turns back.

Instead of going home, he seeks out his former basketball coach, Marty Tothero, who, since Rabbit’s high school days, has been fired for being involved in a scandal and now lives in a broken-down hotel. Rabbit goes to him, presumably, for advice; Tothero seems at first willing to give it but finally does nothing more than get him a bed for the day and, for the evening, a date with Ruth Leonard, a sometime prostitute. Rabbit pays her...

(The entire section is 1248 words.)