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“Alcohol and cards Rabbit both associates with a depressing kind of sin, sin with bad breath, and he was further depressed by the political air of the place.” —John Updike, Rabbit, Run
We’re only a few pages from the beginning of John Updike’s justly celebrated Rabbit, Run. Rabbit has left his apartment after a spat with his tipsy, pregnant wife (they have another child, a boy, two years old) and doesn’t yet realize he isn’t going to return. He walks toward the Sunshine Athletic Association, a social club his former basketball coach frequents. Although soon he will seek refuge with this mentor, just now he passes up the opportunity to go inside: “Alcohol and cards Rabbit both associates with a depressing kind of sin, sin with bad breath, and he was further depressed by the political air of the place.”
This sentence is one of the miracles Updike routinely works in his fiction: he takes an abstraction or an inchoate state of mind, adds something vividly concrete to it, and makes you feel, taste, and see the intangible. I immediately know a lot about what sin means, and doesn’t, to this twenty-six-year-old ex-basketball star. I know his attitude toward right and wrong is probably more hygienic than genuinely moral. We’ve already been given hints that Rabbit is personally fastidious. Updike devotes a detailed sentence to Rabbit carefully hanging up his coat when he arrives home from work, and Rabbit sees his wife as “lumpy” and a lousy housekeeper. It’s not surprising, perhaps, that he would categorize sins in terms of body odor. Violating a sacrament, shaming a wife, and damaging the trust of a young son—these are mere misdeeds. Old age and becoming superfluous (no longer a basketball hero?) are the true, stinking offenses.
I always remember that, as a young man, Updike trained as a visual artist, and I sometimes study his novels and stories to try to glean how he makes description so intimately revealing, when in other books it often amounts to journalism or window-dressing. When I read Updike’s best work, I feel that I’ve been transported to some vividly lit place where everything stands out in sharp relief. This clarity of atmosphere is extremely pleasant, even when Updike’s subject matter is less so. There may be murk and obscurity in Rabbit’s mind, but there are none in the narrator’s translation of it. When Rabbit plays a pickup game with some kids at the start of the novel, his body stretching for the ball, “it feels like he’s reaching down through years to touch this tautness.” Could there be a more precise and tactile way to express the distance Rabbit feels from his youth or the joy he once possessed in it?
Don’t get me wrong—murk and obscurity are sometimes essential in fiction, the only way of expressing certain truths. But it’s nice to spend time in a universe where everything psychological or spiritual seems to have its material analogue, where, if it’s not too much to say, the code of life makes sense and can be broken. It’s appropriate that Updike was a believing Christian all his life. As his fictional worlds’ God, he makes even what is hidden perfectly legible.
Pamela Erens‘s novel The Understory was a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist. Her new novel, The Virgins, will be published by Tin House Books in August 2013.