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Sentimental story is also very memorable

The Memory of Running is a “road book.” In some respects it resembles what critics in the 19th century called a “picaresque,” which means that the protagonist finds himself on a journey or a kind of quest.

That would certainly fit Smithy “Hook” Ide, except the hero of a picaresque is usually a colorful (and lovable) rascal like Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, who uses his wits to escape numerous embarrassing and/or dangerous predicaments. Smithy is an overweight alcoholic who, at 46, is still living with his parents and working in a New Jersey toy factory where his primary function is to check to see if the hands of Sam, the SEAL action figure, has his palms turned in. Smithy drinks a lot of beer, eats a lot of pretzels and weights in at 279 pounds. He has no friends.

At one point in The Memory of Running, Smithy does a bit of candid self-analysis and concludes, “I put people off.” In actual fact, that is a stunning understatement. At various times in his life, Smithy is mistaken for a thief, a rapist and a child molester. Essentially, this is because he is a slob who seems to be incapable of speaking clearly. He frequently introduces himself to strangers by saying, “I am not a vagrant or homeless person. I just happen to look like one.”

A series of painful events (including a disastrous high school career and the Vietnam War) converts Smithy from a passive, introverted nerd to an overweight incoherent slob. Essentially, Smithy is haunted by his sister Bethany’s mental illness – a condition that is a bizarre mix of black humor and horror. Bethany has a “voice” inside her head that provokes her to remove her clothes, scream obscenities and tear the skin on her face and arms with her fingernails.

In addition to numerous suicide attempts, Bethany periodically vanishes for long periods of time. Each time she is rescued and returned home (usually by Smithy), she goes through a “normal” stage in which she appears sane (her affectionate name for Smithy is “Hook” because of his poor posture). However, despite the care of expensive psychiatrists (all of which are callous frauds), Bethany’s cunning and deceitful voices return. Smithy comes to believe that his beloved sister is the helpless pawn of something evil ... something that is amused by all of the attempts to “save” Bethany.

The Memory of Running is a chronicle of the disastrous affects of mental illness on family and loved ones. Ron McLarty’s depiction of the Ide family is especially appealing, complete with a father who is a sports fanatic, a mother who cooks huge meals and a multitude of relatives (“salt of the earth” folks), who eat them. Flawed, foolish and filled with good will – even Count, the huge, jocular uncle who tells racist jokes – the Ide family seem to represent the best (and worst) family values. However, when the phone rings and someone reports that Bethany has disappeared again, the Ides launches a search – each one longer than the last. Smithy rides his bike through the neighborhood, calling her name.

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Then, there is Norma, who lives in the house next door, an invalid who has had a life-long crush on Smithy. Although he is embarrassed and irritated by Norma’s attention, Smithy invariably turns to Norma when yet another tragedy occurs. When Smithy’s parents are killed in a car wreck, he finds himself abruptly jerked from his apathetic life. Following the funeral, he discovers an unopened letter with a Los Angeles postmark. Smithy learns that his sister’s remains had been identified through her dental records and the city morgue wishes to know how they should dispose of them.

Thus begins Smithy Ide’s quest. Retrieving his old Raleigh bicycle, this fat, 42-year-old man sets out to bring his sister home once more. The journey is a near-impossible feat, but as it progresses from New Jersey to Pennsylvania and on into the heart of the Midwest, Smithy acquires supplies, camping equipment and a new bike. He is also beaten up, shot and run over.

However, in this journey across America, The Memory of Running acquires a marvelous quality. Each day is a revelation (good and bad), and as Smithy rides he recalls the fact that he weighed only 121 pounds when he was inducted into the service; He also remembers the fact that the doctors removed over 20 bullets from his body in a field hospital. When he returns home with a Purple Heart, he moves back in his old room and goes to work at the toy factory. Then came lots of pretzels and his mother’s casseroles.

Much of the narrative is divided between the past and the present: memories from high school and his first bungling attempts at dating are presented between the vivid images of the world that Smithy experiences on his journey. Sleeping in pastures and cornfields and subsisting on bananas and cookies, this awkward, confused man begins to acquire new qualities. He becomes an experienced biker and camper (at one point he joins a bike marathon), and as he nears Los Angeles, he frequently says, “I’m coming, Bethany. Hook is coming!”

Each night, Smithy calls Norma back in New Jersey. Throughout this long trek, Norma is the only anchor in Smithy Ide’s life. When bad luck comes, and accidents, breakdowns and violence brings his journey to a stop, he calls Norma, who sends him money. It is also noteworthy that there are numerous examples of “good luck,” strangers who are capable of kindness and generosity. When an accident leaves Smithy with a wrecked bike (his beloved Raleigh) and without food, camping equipment or clothing, one of Smithy’s benefactors purchases a professional racing bike, clothing and some expensive camping equipment.

In terms of meaningful accomplishments, Smithy’s arrival in Los Angles is secondary to the people that he encounters. Time and time again, he finds himself the willing listener to strangers who relate their personal sorrows. A truck driver plagued by the death of his brother; a sidewalk artist who creates with colored chalk tells Smithy about her lost love; the mother of a Vietnam veteran who grieves for her addicted son – all of these strangers have stories that unfold like a sad chorus of sorrow simply because Smithy is there to listen.

Eventually, this stubborn traveler (who has lost a lot of weight on this trip) begins to suspect that perhaps his role in life is ... to listen.

It would be easy to find flaws in this book. The Memory of Running is sentimental to a fault and there are times when the author’s shocking revelations fail because the reader has already seen them coming.

However, sometimes the “heart” of a book is so great, it seems petty to criticize a little bad carpentry. I found Smithy “The Hook” tremendously appealing and suspect that he will pedal through my memory for a long time.

The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty. Viking Press, 2004. 358 pages.

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