by Ron McLarty
Smithy Ide is a friendless 43-year-old fat slob of an alcoholic in a dead-end job whose parents both just died in a car accident and whose beloved sister -- a homeless schizophrenic -- has just turned up 3,000 miles away, in a morgue, dead.
Conditions are right, in other words, for Smithy, the first-person narrator of Ron McLarty's The Memory of Running, to drown his sadness in more beer and sausages, then drown himself like the hapless 279-pound puppy he is.
And reaching for another 12-pack is exactly what he does -- until, stupefied one night, he stumbles across the cherry red Raleigh bicycle that he had a kid, back when he was skinny and made beelines everywhere. He climbs on and weaves drunkenly down a Rhode Island highway until he falls asleep in a field. And then rides a bit more, and a bit more, until the journey of Smithy across America becomes a lesson in how to savor small victories and encapsulate grief.
McLarty interweaves Smithy's cross-country trek, without contrivance, into the past: childhood embarrass-ments and loneliness merge into his parents' funeral, and Bethany's repeated disappearances fuse with the unknowable discoveries Smithy will make across America.
Both in his actual life and in the pulp fiction he begins to read, Smithy encounters lots of people who are enduring the deaths of loved ones -- but the sadness isn't sentimentalized, and McLarty knows how to sift in comedy to soften the grief.
Smithy's internal monologue teeters between slow-but-functional and insightful-but-only-barely. We're never entirely sure if the visions he continues to have of Bethany As She Was are the products of an inarticulate brother's longing or the same schizophrenia that enslaved his sister.
All he knows is that he has to keep pedaling, because Bethany is cold on a slab in L.A.
Partly because it uses simple language to juxtapose despair and silliness, this is the best novel I have read in a long time.
One of my professors once inscribed one of his books to me with the phrase, "Keep going?" -- as if we had any choice but to trudge on, trying to understand our lives better.
By reliving his memory of what it was like to be a boy, full of life, running everywhere, Smithy Ide reminds us of the opportunity we all have: Simply, to keep going. The bike is in the driveway, and the road stretches far.
Publication date: 05/05/05