When character actor and voice-over artist Ron McLarty wrote his first novel, The Memory of Running
, he had a difficult time getting it published. Eventually, he, instead, released the work in audiobook form – an audiobook which got the attention of Stephen King, who wrote about McLarty’s novel in his Entertainment Weekly
column. With the attention King’s article brought, McLarty finally got a publishing deal in 2004.The Memory of Running
is a kind of coming of age story, although its protagonist is already middle-aged when he begins his transformation in 1990s Rhode Island. A first-person account of a man who had given up on being an active participant in his own life, redeveloping his sense of self and finding hope for a future, the novel is both a psychological and literal journey.
The narrator, Smithy Ide, is an obese, chain-smoking, lonely drunk who, at forty-three-years-old, has settled for a borderline meaningless existence working as a leg and arm inspector in a doll factory in East Providence, Rhode Island. Although he is has been a loser for the past two decades, he is clearly an engaging man – his narrative voice is funny and self-deprecating, honest about his failings, and he treats other people with empathy and kindness. While the novel jumps back and forth in time, this summary will progress chronologically through Smithy’s life.
As an adolescent, Smithy was tall, skinny, and athletic – the title’s “memory of running” is his recollection of how much he loved to run everywhere. Although he was never the smartest boy, he always had a surprisingly tolerant and open-minded attitude towards others. The family was mostly happy – at least during those moments when his older sister Bethany’s mental illness was at bay.
However, her schizophrenia could never be fully controlled, and often the voices she heard told her to do harmful things. He remembers her being picked on by other kids, and the way her doctors couldn’t actually help her and were, instead, sometimes predatory. Eventually, she became a manipulative and destructive presence in the family’s life. Often, she would simply disappear for days on end, and Smithy and his parents would have to drop everything in order to find her.
Their next-door neighbor was a girl named Norma. Norma had a puppy-love kind of attachment to Smithy, but since she was four years younger, he mostly found her mildly annoying. Still, she was a fixture in his family, and his dad loved the way she could argue about baseball with him. Smithy is tormented by the fact that one day he snapped at Norma to leave him alone – and the very next day, she was hit by a car and has had to use a wheelchair ever since. Pained by guilt, Smithy found it easier to avoid her altogether from then on.
After high school, Smithy was drafted into the army to fight in Vietnam. Smithy is proud of the fact that he never even took out his rifle while he was there. Still, through a series of bureaucratic errors, he ended up in a war zone where he was shot twenty-seven times during a bathroom break. Surviving against all odds, he got a Purple Heart, a multi-year recovery period, and developed apathy toward life, all of which played into his weight ballooning to 279 pounds.
One day, his parents die in a horrible car accident. Sorting through his father’s papers, Smithy comes across a formal letter saying that his long-lost sister, Bethany, has been found dead in Los Angeles. Unhinged by these three losses, Smithy finds his old Raleigh bicycle in the garage and runs into Norma again. The meeting is awkward, but she slips him her phone number anyway.
The first day, Smithy can only bike as far as his old fishing hole, and he ends up passing out on the embankment from exhaustion. But the next morning, he grabs a bunch of bananas, some cans of tuna fish, a bottle of water, a map, and the letter about Bethany’s body, and sets off to ride across the country. As he slowly finds himself losing weight and staying away from cigarettes and booze, Smithy tells us about the people he runs into along the way. We watch as his natural compassion and sense of forgiveness helps him eventually come around to forgiving himself as well.
Along the way, Smithy crashes his bike into a softball game and meets Father Benny. The priest mistakes him for a homeless man, feeds him, and tells him to never give up.
Later, he is hit by a driver who turns out to be dying of AIDS. Feeling guilty, the man invites Smithy to stay at his house – but after the man dies, his doctor accuses Smithy of being a thief, and calls the police to throw Smithy out of the house.
While camping in Colorado, Smithy saves a boy caught in a horrific snowstorm, keeping him warm and alive through the night. The next day, when the two are rescued, Smithy is accused of being a pervert by a group of worried mothers and is inadvertently shot in the neck by an overzealous deputy who answers their call. Eventually, the situation is cleared up, and the boy’s family is deeply grateful for Smithy’s actions.
Some of the way he ends up hitchhiking with a truck driver, who shares a deeply traumatic history: the truck driver’s promising older brother shot his father and then himself while high on heroin. Smithy’s sympathy and the connection he feels to this story that in some ways parallels his own life shifts some of his thinking about himself.
As he progresses across the country, Smithy starts calling Norma to describe his adventures. She helps him out with money and proves an eager listener – and it is in telling her what he is going through that Smithy ends up reconnecting with his resilience and sense of self-worth. The book ends when the two of them reunite, this time with a romantic connection.