From Quixote to Kerouac (not to mention Homer and Vergil), the open road has been literature’s special landscape. It is the place of quest and discovery, escape, redemption and loss, a place where life becomes linear and, to an extent, logical. For Smithson Ide, the protagonist of Ron McLarty’s novel The Memory of Running, the road is all that and more, a cross-country bicycle trip of enlightenment and picaresque charm.
Smithy Ide is a shy, hard-drinking, chain-smoking 43-year-old man who weighs 279 pounds as the book begins. He has virtually no friends and a dead-end job fastening arms and legs to children’s action hero toys. He was wounded 21 times in Vietnam but cannot think of himself as a hero. (He was shot while urinating in a swamp.) By his own account he is a “porker” and a loser.
The story begins with the death of Smithy’s parents in a car wreck and his panicked escape from their funeral on his boyhood bicycle. He has no idea where he is going: he is only “running.” But the ride evolves into a cross-country struggle in which he begins to shed both his excessive weight and the weight of his past. He gradually realizes that he is on a quest to understand his life, and in particular to understand his schizophrenic sister Bethany. She too has died, homeless and mentally ill in California, and Smithy proceeds with the vague idea of reclaiming her body.
Along the way, he encounters the assortment of characters one would expect to find on an epic adventure. In Manhattan, he discovers a 93-year-old artist who draws “notes” for her future paintings on the sidewalks of Washington Square. In Indiana, he is run over by a man who turns out to be dying of AIDS. In St. Louis, he seeks out the man who saved his life in Vietnam and finds him living as a homeless wino. He saves a boy’s life in Colorado and gets shot by the police for his trouble, he resists a woman’s advances in Arizona, and as he crosses California, he finds a truck driver who ponders the addiction and suicide of his brother. Through it all, Smithy is counseled and encouraged by a childhood friend named Norma, a fiercely proud wheelchair-bound woman, with whom he eventually falls in love.
The heart of the story, though, is Bethany, Smithy’s unfortunate sister. She is a lovely and intelligent girl, somewhat older than Smithy, who is beset by a voice that causes her to lose contact with reality and to flee from home. She attempts suicide and periodically strikes motionless poses that may last for hours or days. Trying to explain Bethany’s affliction, Smithy says, “It seemed sometimes that the only connection in a world of disconnection was the steadying call of the voice.” McLarty provides a spare and convincing depiction of Bethany’s schizophrenia and of her terrifying flights into psychosis.
Comparisons of Smithy with the obese and bumptious Ignatius J. Reilly from John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces are inevitable but not really apt. Smithy is a hopeful and loving man whose ride through life offers balm and assistance to almost everyone he meets. He is funny but no fool. Some of the most touching scenes in the book are when he offers clumsy comfort to the people he meets on his way: taking the final testament of the AIDS victim, for example, or listening to the truck driver relate his brother’s inexplicable story. Unlike Toole’s protagonist, Smithy is a hero.
Ron McLarty is a successful actor (he’s had recurring roles in a number of television shows, including Law and Order, and has recorded dozens of audiobooks), but his career as a published writer did not begin until he had been writing for more than 30 years. Despite having written 10 novels (The Memory of Running, his third, was written in 1988), he was rejected so many times that he stopped submitting his new work to publishers, continuing to write for the love of it. But in 2003, Stephen King heard TheMemory of Running, which McLarty had recorded as an audiobook original, and was so impressed that he described the book in Entertainment Weekly as “the best book you can’t read.” With King’s endorsement, McLarty’s career caught fire, and the book became a best seller in hardback last year. McLarty, now 57, has two new novels in the publishing pipeline and a budding literary career he describes simply as “kismet.”