walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_The Memory of Running_, Ron McLarty

I kept wondering, while I was reading this today for book group (which was canceled right around the time I finished it), if I should have read _The Good Soldier Schweik_, which a coworker raved about many years ago. C., being of a literary nature, placed Schweik firmly in a larger literary tradition of the wise fool (Quixote _is_ mentioned in McLarty's book) whose seemingly aimless journey through a novel actually points up a variety of wackitudes in the larger reality outside the novel.

Since I haven't read Hasek, I can't speak to that. But I definitely thought about it a lot as I was reading _The Memory of Running_.

McLarty has done the standard, clever, interleaving by chapter of past-time/current-time, thus slowly peeling back the layers of Smithy aka Hook while Smithy is cycling across country losing a pound a day. Over the course of the book, we find out that (initially) alcoholic, chain-smoking, obese (BMI 38.9, so obese by just about any definition), friendless and generally speechless Smithy had an appallingly tough life. His older sister was psychotic, hearing a Voice which told her to do really weird, scary and dangerous things. The family tried to get her help, but were (understandably) reluctant to institutionalize her. The two psychiatrist enlisted to provide outpatient care either lack any awareness of her psychosis, or don't believe that what she's saying is delusional.

Smithy grows up in the shadow of this craziness. He initially is a runner sent to track down his sister in one of her many disappearances. Then his father gets him a bike, so he can cover more ground. But between his sister eventually completely disappearing, and a terrifying stint in the Vietnam War, Smithy stands still, with a job at a toy factory, cigarettes, junk food, alcohol and television to keep him from thinking or feeling. While some reviewers have questioned his visions of his sister, ya really just gotta figure that psychosis/schizophrenia is inherited and probably a continuum diagnosis; Smithy's basically got some of the same going on inside that Bethany does. And he definitely understands her, better than his parents.

It takes the relatively rapid extinction of all three members of his family to give Smithy a new chance to blossom and grow -- which, again, makes perfect sense given the family situation. But the details of the cross-country expedition, and the details of his past as it is exposed, and the details of the pasts of the people he meets along the way, are profoundly and, I would argue, gratuitously disturbing in a way that I did not find particularly supportive of the plot. In a lot of ways, this is a horror novel -- it just doesn't have any elements of the supernatural to it (well, maybe). Smithy lives in fear of quietness, because when it gets quiet, really bad shit happens to him. I would further add that for much of the book, whenever Smithy tries to help someone (or to help himself), he gets well and truly messed up: dumped, beaten up, hit by a car, shot, falls into a river, you name it. By the end of the novel, however, Smithy is learning. Shortly after a Hot Young Thing crawls into his sleeping bag with him (and he politely turfs her out), he leaves in the wee hours before the rest of the bicycle club. Smart move, to my mind; I would not trust her not to make up some shit about he tried to rape her.

I also wanted tot ell Smithy to vary his lunch/dinner choices from tuna sandwiches. Dude, that mercury will mess you up. OTOH, he was burning fat the whole time, rather than laying any down, so maybe it wouldn't matter.

It's a fast, if somewhat creepy, read, well-constructed with a coherent set of characters who generally behave as they should, not just in the way needed to advance the plot. I didn't like it, but that's largely because this isn't the kind of book that I like. That said, it has an emotionally satisfying ending -- McLarty does not kick the crap out of his protagonist and then leave him for dead; there is a reasonable reward at the end for Smithy and all his trials and tribulations.

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