The Memory of Running
There’s a point in this book where the principal character describes the hot dogs he has eaten. He has spent all his money on hot dogs and eaten them and while he reflects that hot dogs are not good food, they feel like they should be good food. Hot dogs are food made by someone who cooks a lot but has no real concept of nutrition. This book is a novel written by someone who knows how to write a novel but doesn’t seem to have a very good concept of how people work.
But maybe I’m being too harsh. It’s easy to conflate the principal character of a novel with its author. The principal character in this book, Smithy Ide, is as dumb as a box of rocks. What this novel reminds me of the most is Forrest Gump. Like Forrest, Smithy has humble beginnings and an unspectacular upbringing and his one main virtue is that he never thinks about anything before doing it and seems to attarct attention despite being singularly unattractive and unremarkable. Unlike Forrest, Smithy isn’t played by the charismatic Tom Hanks, but is a nearly 300lb middle-aged alcoholic at a dead-end job in Rhode Island.
I’m sure that’s not what the author would say this book was about. I’m sure the author would say this book was about Bethany Ide, and how her mental illness affected the lives of her brother and the rest of her family. You could say Bethany was a beautiful but troubled girl who had a voice that told her to do things (my layman’s best guess was catatonic schitzophrenia). She’s beautiful, and kind. She’s beautiful, and troubled. She’s beautiful, and has a beautiful voice, and looks so beautiful on her prom night, and oh, so troubled, that poor girl with her mental illness. We don’t know what Bethany wants out of life, what her favorite hobby is, what flavor of ice cream she prefers, what her favorite color is, if she’s smart or dumb, if she likes crowds or being alone. We only know she’s beautiful, and kind, and troubled. At one point, she tells Smithy why she does her catatonic poses, but we don’t know how she feels about her mental illness, or hear anything from her point of view. In another story that wouldn’t matter, but Bethany and her illness dominate this novel. The story of Bethany is nearly half of the make-up of this book, and Bethany’s opinion doesn’t seem to matter. Bethany’s thoughts didn’t seem to matter. Bethany is just a beautiful creature who must be protected, not a human being capable of autonomous thought. All that matters is that she is beautiful, and that she needs to be protected. That bugged me. I mean, seriously. At least 40% of the book deals with Bethany, and I don’t know anything about her other than that she’s beautiful and crazy. She’s an object, not a human being. I’ve known chickens with more personality.
In the story, Smithy’s parents die suddenly, and on a drunken whim, he starts to ride his Raleigh bike. He wakes up several miles away, and decides he’s going to keep riding to Los Angeles to get Bethany, who has been missing for many years and whose dental records matched up with a homeless person who passed away. The fact that he has no money, no bike patch kit, no real supplies of any kind and no good plan on what he’s going to do when he gets there doesn’t faze him. Smithy’s one virtue is that he doesn’t ever think about anything before he does it, or even while he’s doing it. But he does have an asset: Norma.
Norma is the second thing I dislike about this book. Norma was the kid down the street who had a crush on Smithy since forever, but when Norma was a fairly young girl she got hit by a car and was in a wheelchair the rest of her life. So, instead of coming over and hanging out with the Ide kids, Norma stayed in her living room and peered sadly out the blinds at the people who couldn’t be bothered to come over and say hi. Yet, she still adores Smithy and will do anything for him. She sends Smithy money when he needs it, which enables him to continue his idiotic bike ride. Norma has a big spiel in the beginning of the novel about how self-reliant she is, how she makes good money and is strong and fit and can get herself up the porch on her own power and how she never feels sorry for herself. I say: shenanigans. She does feel sorry for herself. She feels sorry for herself, and Smithy feels sorry for her, and the reader is expected to pity her too. I do, not because of the wheelchair, but because Norma is a doormat. Why would you pine for decades after a guy who couldn’t be bothered to walk across the street to say hi? Why would you desperately want to go hang out with them, and be able to do so, and not do so? Why would I respect a girl who loved Smithy, of all people? Smithy, the drunk, fat, loser with a dead-end job who finds reading books difficult and doesn’t know how to make or keep friends? What, exactly, are we meant to admire in him? His planet-like head? His skill at fishing? The fact that every single person who sees Smithy instantly jumps to the worst possible conclusions about his motives? (If every single person I met immediately assumed I was capable/had committed incest, rape, pedophilia, murder or theft, I might solicit some feedback on how to improve my demeanor.) But Norma isn’t a real person. Norma is the Penelope to his Ulysses. Norma is the selfless heart, the good woman whose undying love proves Smithy has worth. She’s too good to him, but that’s to be expected in escapist fiction. We know from the beginning that Norma is meant to be with Smithy. It’s like Norma was the one they all expected him to marry when he grew up, and Smithy blew it, not because he had the independence to overthrow societal expectations, but because he was too clueless to see what was right in front of him.
I think the target reader of this book is a man who was raised in the exceedingly narrow gender-confines of mid-century middle-America. How do you cope with grief when crying is unmanly? Get drunk and do something stupid and dangerous. How do you cope when your life falls apart and you don’t even have enough sense to come in out of the rain? Wait for the love of a good woman to fix you. When Smithy goes on and on about the breasts he wants to date (yes, there’s a girl attached, but it’s the breasts he is interested in) the reader is maybe supposed to go “aw, yeah, man, I like boobs too!” When Smithy seems incapable of coherent speech under even moderate stress, maybe we’re meant to go “aw, yeah, man, communicating is so hard!” At one point, Smithy has been biking so long and eating nothing but fruit for so long that he’s lost 50 or 60 lbs, and he joins up with a cross-country biking trip where a pretty girl in her 20s gets naked and climbs into bed with him. This is pure fantasyland. A nearly 300lb guy who lost that much weight in a month is going to look like a deflated balloon, not like David Hasselhoff. And hot 20 something women generally don’t solicit no strings attached sex with guys in their 40s unless a cash transaction is involved, especially not planet-headed, unemployed morons with less personality than a chicken. But it’s not meant to be realistic, I think, it’s meant to appeal to the private fantasies of the target reader. Smithy is meant to be a “good guy” but not having done anything bad (unless you count abandoning the only friend in the world who’d even look him in the eye for a couple of decades) doesn’t make a person good, it just makes them a zero.
But maybe that was the author’s intention. Maybe Smithy is the plain white page to set off the characters with actual personality. Because Smithy does meet interesting people along the way. His uncle Count has a personality, albiet a one-note personality (lech/dirty old man/racist). His dad has a personality. Well, sort of. (Devoted baseball player/fan + devoted father of a troubled girl). His mom makes sandwiches. His aunt is “strong” because she puts creepy uncle Count to bed after he gets drunk/has another heart attack. Smithy meets a street artist in New York who draws birds and tells him about her wild love affairs. He meets a bike repairman in California who is mourning a dead son. He meets a vegetarian mother in Colorado who wants to adopt a second child. He shares a love of badly made coffee with a trucker. I like the form of the novel. I liked the pacing of it. I liked the idea of it. But I do not like the end result. Too much hung on the underwritten characters. Smithy needed to feel like a real person. He is a bland, poorly-spoken dishrag, and I got tired of his “gosh, that’s neat” or “people are mostly nice” or “I don’t know. I just don’t know.” The plot was okay, but a character-driven novel ought to have characters worth reading about (or listening to, in my case). The story was kind of fun, but a novel ought to have some sentiment or language or poetry that the reader could take away, some observation on the human condition. I don’t think it delivered. In short, this novel is like the kind of hot dog sold in institutions that bid on the cheapest food: skill went into its creation, but the raw ingredients are poor quality and flavorless.