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Twenty-six-year-old Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom runs home one evening to find his wife, Janice, who is seven months pregnant, at home – without their son Nelson and without the family car – drinking, again. They argue, and he leaves to fetch the car and the boy, but along the way decides to permanently hightail it out of Mt. Judge, Pennsylvania and drive until he gets to the beach. He drives in circles and ends up back in Mt. Judge the next day. Instead of going home, he goes to see his high school basketball coach, Marty Tothero, who introduces him to Ruth Leonard, a sexually experienced woman about his age who has dabbled in prostitution. Rabbit and Ruth hit it off famously, and Rabbit decides to drop his car off for Janice, grab a few clothes, and shack up with Ruth in the city of Brewer, of which Mt. Judge is a suburb.
While leaving his old pad he is pursued by Jack Eccles, the minister of Janice’s family’s church. Eccles and Rabbit develop a friendship of sorts, which mostly consists of Eccles trying to convince Rabbit to return to Janice while battling (and coaching) him on the golf course – and of Rabbit getting into some heavy flirting with Eccles’ wife, Lucy.
Two months pass. Rabbit and Ruth are for the most part happy. Rabbit has left his work as a MagiPeel Peeler salesman and found fulfillment in the widowed Mrs. Smith’s fabulous fifty-acre garden. Yet, signs of trouble are emerging in the Rabbit and Ruth household. Ruth is about a month pregnant, but hasn’t told Rabbit yet. Ruth and Rabbit go out for drinks one night and things get ugly. Rabbit feels that Ruth took the side of her old lover, Ronnie Harrison, when Ronnie was clearly giving Rabbit a hard time. Rabbit interrogates Ruth as to her sexual history with Ronnie, and then, upon finding out that she gave Ronnie a blowjob, requires Ruth to give him one to make up for her traitorous behavior. She does, and a little later that night Reverend Eccles calls to tell Rabbit that Janice is in labor.
He leaves Ruth to go to Janice and soon becomes the proud father of one Rebecca June Angstrom. While Janice is recovering, Rabbit moves back into their old apartment with his son Nelson, and cleans the place up while spending quality time with the boy. Janice gets out of the hospital, and things are OK. Janice isn’t drinking. Rabbit is working for her dad, selling used cars. But after nine days both Janice’s body and mind are feeling postpartum strain.
That Sunday, Rabbit goes to Eccles’s church for the first time (leaving Janice and the kids at home to rest). He gets into some deep flirting with Lucy Eccles and comes home wanting to have sex NOW with Janice. The baby won’t stop crying though, for like hours, and the whole time Rabbit is trying to get Janice to drink (to put her in the mood), chain smoking, and clinging to her in case she suddenly feels like having sex with him.
Finally, the baby stops crying, Nelson goes to bed, and Rabbit gets Janice to take a drink. They get into bed and Rabbit tries to have sex with her. Still sore from giving birth, from her episiotomy, and from Rabbit living with “a whore,” Janice rebuffs him. He gets mad and leaves.
Meanwhile, Janice really does start drinking, and drinks all day Monday in fact. Frantic and depressed, she slaps Nelson. Her mother calls and upsets her, and then she finds that Rebecca June has somehow gotten baby poop all over herself and her crib. Drunk and full of anger, confusion, and fear, Janice tries to give Rebecca a bath and accidentally drowns her.
Rabbit calls Eccles that night and finds out what happened. He’d spent the night in a motel and the day trying to catch a glimpse of Ruth, but with no luck. He busses back to Mt. Judge full of shame and remorse. Why is he so ashamed? Because he really thinks, most of the time, that he killed his daughter by not being in the apartment at the time of her death. He feels like he took out a hit on the kid when he walked out on Janice. He really convinces himself, and is disappointed that the law doesn’t consider him a suspect. This guilt makes him more determined than ever to work things out with Janice. To stay with her forever to atone for his sins…but…
At the end of Rebecca June’s burial service he loudly accuses Janice of murdering their daughter and loudly proclaims his innocence. Humiliated, he runs.
He runs to Brewer, finds Ruth, and guesses she is pregnant. She is really nasty to him and threatens to abort the baby if he doesn’t divorce Janice so he can marry her. He agrees, but when he steps out to pick up food from the deli, as you’ve probably predicted, he runs…And the book ends.