Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Review - "The Memory of Running," by Ron McLarty

Ron McLarty is, in the parlance of Bill Simmons, a “that guy.” He’s an actor, middle aged, been around a long time, mildly recognizable as a supporting player, typically on television. He has a number of credits as “Papa Bear” on The Berenstain Bears.

I picked up “The Memory of Running” at the library a few days ago during one of my typical get-six-books-and-see-what-sticks trips. It was in the “book clubs are reading these books” shelf, face out, and I run, so seeing the word “running” in the title grabbed my attention. I was also struck by the cover, featuring an old-style bike under a starry sky. Nice.

So I brought it with me on a camping trip this past weekend with my kids, and was grabbed by it, almost immediately.

It’s the story of Smithson Ide, a hapless, friendless, sexless, heavy-drinking 279-pound man in his forties whose parents are suddenly (is there any other way?) killed in a car accident. He tries to self-medicate his way through it, but as he’s going through their papers, he finds a letter to his father from the LA County Coroner’s Office – his older sister Bethany, a model-beautiful woman with schizophrenia who disappeared a few days after marrying years earlier – had been identified from dental records, and could someone claim her body?

On reading this, Ide goes to the garage, gets out his old Raleigh bicycle and starts pedaling to LA from home in Providence Rhode Island. From this fulcrum, the book slides into a rapid chapter-by-chapter rhythm, alternating from his journey West to reminiscence of the events leading to his sister’s disappearance. Bethany had a hard, hard life, and some of the incidents in her half of the story are harrowing (“the voice” that she hears and sometimes expresses is quite disturbing) and often gruesome. Her family desperately tries to keep her anchored and healthy, but the inexorable march of her schizophrenia is terrifying to see and ultimately heartbreaking. But the structure of the book allows McLarty to change the mood and go back to Ide’s bike ride, which, if not completely trouble-free, is at least obviously pointing toward some sort of successful conclusion.

Which is the major problem with the book, I suppose. It’s not the most subtle and unpredictable read. Ide encounters problems on the way, yes, and Bethany experiences some periods of happiness and relative mental health, but it’s pretty clear early on where this is all going. She’s going to completely disintegrate, and he’s going to make it from Providence to LA on a bicycle, and he’s going to end up with the neighbor girl who’s loved him since he was ten and she was six. No spoilers here, clearly. And some of the things that happen to him on his trip are, frankly, a little far-fetched and seem forced.

But using the phrase “major problem” is overstating it – it’s a quibble. Far-fetched and forced or predictable are both okay, if the structure around it is sound, and in this case it is. Characters are believably drawn, the dialogue is a bit flat but prose is simple and clean, and McLarty keeps things moving at a good pace.

4 / 5 stars. A nice, satisfying effort.

Next up: Mindless Eating,” by Brian Wansink, a food researcher and psychologist from the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. Apparently, it’s been called the “Freakonomics of Food” and featured on Oprah and other outlets, although I’ve somehow missed the hype. I eat. Mindlessly and endlessly.

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