Every decade seems to produce a novel that captures the public’s imagination with a story that sweeps readers up and takes them on a thrilling, unforgettable ride. Ron McLarty’s The Memory of Running is this decade’s novel. By all accounts, especially his own, Smithson "Smithy" Ide is a loser. An overweight, friendless, chain-smoking, forty-three-year-old drunk, Smithy’s life becomes completely unhinged when he loses his parents and long-lost sister within the span of one week. Rolling down the driveway of his parents’ house in Rhode Island on his old Raleigh bicycle to escape his grief, the emotionally bereft Smithy embarks on an epic, hilarious, luminous, and extraordinary journey of discovery and redemption.
Ron McLarty has joined the ranks of writers of the quirky hero with The Memory of Running. His hero, Smithy Ide, is in the grand tradition of Ignatius J. Reilly of A Confederacy of Dunces and Quoyle of The Shipping News. What these gentlemen have in common is their lumpen-loser looks, their outsider status and their general befuddlement about the way the world works and their place in it. Smithy rises above them because of his self-effacing nature, his great capacity for love, his inability to show it and his endless willingness to forgive.
Smithy is a 279-pound, hard-drinking, chain-smoking, 43-year-old misfit who works in a G.I. Joe factory putting arms and legs on the action heroes. (How did McLarty come up with that?) He is also the most beguiling anti-hero to come into view in a long, long time. McLarty, an award-winning actor and playwright best known for his many appearances on TV in Law & Order, Sex and the City, The Practice, and Judging Amy, has added another star to his creative crown with this novel.
The first sentence of the book is: "My parents' Ford station wagon hit a concrete divider on U.S. 95 outside Biddeford, Maine, in August 1990." This tragic accident eventually claims both their lives. It is on the day of their funeral that Smithy finds a letter to his father about Bethany, his beloved and deeply troubled sister, stating that, "Bethany Ide, 51, died from complications of exposure... and she has since that time been in the Los Angeles Morgue West." Beautiful Bethany, given to taking off her clothes in public places, holding impossible poses for long periods of time, responding to voices that only she can hear, and disappearing for no known reason. This time, she has been gone for many years and now Smithy knows that she died destitute and alone. When he reads the letter, he is drunk, grief-stricken and, despite a house full of people, he is alone. He goes out to the garage to smoke and have another drink and spies his old Raleigh bicycle. He sits on it, flat tires and all, wheels it to the end of the driveway--and--Smithy doesn’t know it yet, but he is going to ride a bicycle from Maine to Los Angeles to claim his sister's remains.
On the road he meets the good, the bad, and the really bad. He frequently calls Norma, the Ides' across-the-street neighbor, confined to a wheelchair for years, and always in love with him. He has never acknowledged nor returned her ardor, but he starts to count on her friendship during his travels. Their conversations are sweet and revelatory. McLarty has done a superb job of showing us who Smithy is and who he is becoming. It's a wonderful story told with great poignancy and humor. --Valerie Ryan