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Smithy Ide is 43 years old and weighs 279 pounds. He's got a daft job in a factory, in his spare time he's mostly at home in front of the telly, boozing, chain-smoking and eating himself to death. He's turned into the 'f*** fat-ass slob' his elder sister Bethany had warned him he'd become when he was in his early twenties. When both his parents die in a car accident, he returns home for the funeral to East Providence, Rhode Island. Going through their mail he finds a letter from the Coroner's Office for the County of Los Angeles from which he learns that Bethany, who went missing more than 20 years ago, has died there.
He has a look into his parents' garage and sees his bike with which he was out at all times when he was a boy. Out of a whimsy he takes it out for a ride and then just keeps moving although he's got nothing with him, no money, no identification, no clothing. He somehow gets to New York, from there he calls Norma, a neighbour who was always at the Ides' house when they were children, to send him money. And he makes it across the American continent to Los Angeles, his experiences and the thoughts he has on this journey are the content of the novel.
It's risky to make a physically repulsive and not too bright character whose favourite sentence is "I don't know" the main protagonist, even more so to tell the story in the first person from his perspective. Describing a boring existence can lead to boring reading; McLarty, however, pulls it off, he manages to arouse the reader's interest and sympathy.
On one level The Memory of Running is a typical American road story, it can only be set in this vast country. Even if someone crossed GB from south to north, they wouldn't take around fifty days and see so many diverse landscapes. For the first time in his adult life Smithy notices the physical world around him and he likes what he sees. He meets people, five encounters are described in detail. He doesn't only listen to their, sometimes funny, sometimes touching, life stories and commit himself to their causes, he also talks about himself and what worries him - things he's never done before.
We watch with him how he changes, not only in the way he perceives the world and its inhabitants but also personally. Not surprisingly, he becomes a paragon of fitness, riding his bike and eating only healthy food, no alcohol, no cigarettes make him realise that his body does have a shape after all.
The other level is the memories of his childhood and youth until he was sent to Vietnam where he was badly wounded and his sister disappeared for good. These memories are intertwined with the description of his bike ride, they're not set off the text by headlines or other kinds of introduction, one paragraph may describe the beauty of the Rocky Mountains and the next what his sister Bethany did in high school. I'm a conservative reader and not a great fan of such hopping forward and backward in time, but as the whole novel is written in the past and the grammatical tenses don't change according to which level we're on, the constant switching didn't bother me too much. It came over as natural even, most of the time Smithy has no one to talk to, he's on the way to see his dead sister, so it's only understandable that his thoughts wander and he associates events of the present with events from the past.
Smithy's sister suffered from a severe psychotic disorder, it never has a name because no psychologist could get to the heart of the matter. A voice would tell her to take her clothes off and/or strike poses in which she could stand even for days or to disappear for hours or days. The family love her dearly and from very early on Smithy learns to look for her - when she's disappeared - and to look after her when she's got one of her seizures. A more loving brother isn't imaginable.
The Memory of Running is not a novel about a midlife crisis although age-wise Smithy belongs to the jeopardised age group. It's more a story about coming back to life after a long spell of numbness; not only the layers of fat peel off Smithy's body during his journey, also his layers of numbness peel off his soul.
All this sounds rather good, but I can recommend the novel only with reservation. At the beginning there's too much about baseball, I don't know a thing about this sport and I don't want to learn anything, to make me happy publishers should put a sticker on the front cover of a book "Warning! Novel contains explicit description of baseball". (or any other sportive activity). My claim that no novel should have more than 400 pages is proved right again, with a bit of editing - read: out with half of the sports events - it would have improved.
Moreover, the novel becomes a bit cheesy in the end due to the way the character Norma is portrayed, the childhood neighbour Smithy re-discovers long distance during his journey. There's also a bit too much of Bethany for my liking while he's on the road, Smithy 'sees' her every other mile hovering somewhere near the highway.
The Memory of Running is Ron McCarty's (born in 1947) debut novel. Besides being an author he's also an actor, imdb lists 44 roles. The Memory of Running will be made into a film in 2010, McLarty has already written the screenplay.
3 ½ stars from me.
Time Warner Paperbacks