"My parents' Ford wagon hit a concrete divider on U.S. 95 outside of Biddeford, Maine, in August 1990." So begins the epic journey of Smithson "Smithy" Ide, a lumbering, overweight man in his forties and the antihero of Ron McLarty's picaresque novel, THE MEMORY OF RUNNING.
When we first meet Smithy, it's clear that he's going nowhere fast. He's in a dead-end job at a toy factory in Rhode Island, making sure the faces on the action figures are on straight. He's 279 pounds and barreling headlong into a serious drinking problem, with no girlfriend or even friends to speak of. He has just finished up a summer vacation with his parents, and is staying behind to clean up their cabin. When a local patrolman pulls up, he learns the horrible news that his parents have been in a terrible car accident and have been rushed to two different hospitals. Smithy spends the next couple of days shuttling between the two. Despite all efforts, their injuries are too severe. His father passes away, and within hours so does his mother.
The grief is almost too much to bear, and Smithy's broad shoulders begin to buckle under the weight of his loss. He has an older sister but she disappeared 25 years ago. Bethany suffered from schizophrenia, although no doctor had ever correctly diagnosed her. She heard a voice that made her say and do things, like to take off all her clothes and stand in elaborate poses, and once even jump off the Red Hill Bridge into the freezing water below. The Ides' lives have been shrouded by an uneasy anticipation --- waiting for the phone to ring with that inevitable call about Bethany. Her disappearances were commonplace, but once she fell in love and was engaged, things seemed to change for the better. The voice seemed like it had faded away and her future looked bright. But a day after her wedding, she was gone. And that was the last they had heard from Bethany.
With all these pressures and problems, Smithy begins a cross-country trek with his childhood Raleigh bicycle looking for answers. As the miles roll by, the weight falls off and his confidence is renewed. He reflects back on his troubled family history, his guilt over his time in Vietnam, and comes to grips with the more difficult relationships in his life --- his sister and his invalid neighbor, Norma, whose love and affection he had always rebuffed.
McLarty writes simply and honestly, and we are right there with Smithy on every step of his remarkable journey. We join in his mourning and celebrate his triumphs. In the end, we find ourselves deeply moved by this flawed but lovable Don Quixote.
The author moved to New York City many years ago in the hopes of being a writer but was sidetracked by his acting and quickly became a very successful character actor who has appeared on "Law and Order" and "Sex and the City," among others. He also is a popular reader for various books-on-tape and is known for his renditions of Stephen King novels. King is largely responsible for shining a light on McLarty's literary talent. After a mention in King's Entertainment Weekly column, a bidding war began for the publishing and film rights to THE MEMORY OF RUNNING. Finally, after so many years of trying, McLarty hopefully will be able to enjoy some literary success.
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on January 7, 2011
The Memory of Running