(Viking)Smithy Ide weighs 279 pounds, drinks screwdrivers and beer, eats junk food. He works an idiot job on a production line in Providence, and often has visions of his mad sister, Bethany, watching him from a passing car, or floating in the air, in one of her schizophrenic poses --- arms out, leg up, frozen for hours or days.She hears a voice which he wishes she didn't. It's a voice which tells her to kill dogs, run away from home, and on her wedding night, ditch her new husband and steal the family car and disappear.One day Smithy is driving her to her appointment with her psychiatrist, Dr. Georgina Glass. She is telling him about her job in the thrift shop, about the old people that come in. "They want shoes and warm coats. Sometimes they want them and they don't have any money at all."
I turned onto Waterman Avenue and cut over toward Blackstone Boulevard. "What do you do if they want some shoes and they don't have any money."
"I give them to them."
"Schnibe," she muttered. "Schnibe, callop, disper."
"You just said something."
"No, I didn't."
"'Schnibe' or something."
"No I didn't."
Dr. Glass's office was in her brick home near the Brown University campus. The football field was above it, and I parked alongside the concrete bleachers.
"Callop," she said louder.
"It's the football field. One of Dr. Glass's boyfriends is a football coach ... She gives him blowjobs," Bethany said.
"C'mon," I said. "Quit it."
§ § §
It's an elegant mix, all this: the fat, shy, thoroughly wounded Vietnam veteran, his off-the-wall dingbat sister, the old man nuts about baseball, mother who makes good tuna-fish sandwiches. After Bethany disappears from her honeymoon, for awhile Mom and Dad and Smithy continue to visit the jilted boyfriend in his store, but then stop, somewhat ashamed by the antics of Bethany, "So Jeff Greene drifted out of our lives, and Pop became a Bethany detective, and Mom sat by the phone, and I became a mountain."
Memory of Running ends up with Smithy on his bicycle, leaving Providence, bicycling over the roads and hills and mountains, through snow-storms and rain and the wind all the way to Los Angeles (where they have found the body of poor Bethany), and we are on the road for a couple of months with this plump, soft-spoken, passive, semi-angelic character, Don Quixote on a Raleigh, Dostoyevski's Idiot on a bike, with adventures in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, beaten up by some, embraced by others, being helped by a fallen priest (who unfortunately loved one of his parishioners too divinely), meeting with the family of a black friend in East St. Louis (they served together in the war) who has turned into a junky, spending a time in the house of a man dying from AIDS, saving the life of a boy in a snowstorm, ends up being seduced ("I could taste her lipstick, and it lingered in my beard. She tasted like apples.") in the middle of a a bicycle race through New Mexico and Arizona.
The Memory of Running turns into a beguiling, classic American on-the-road tale. It is never without a certain wiry tension with this semi-incoherant forty-two-year-old running from his past, running to his own conversion from a fat ne'er-do-well to one who learns of himself through others he meets on the road. The reader is always on edge --- we have affection for this galoot; we don't want him hurt and we are always wondering if he will make it without being overwhelmed by his sweet, sweaty innocence.
It's a tricky tale. It would be hard for most writers to make it jell. It works because McLarty knows pacing and a sense of fun and awe of what it's like to try to survive in a country like Smithy's. His phrasing is seldom sentimental; his writing is precise ... sometimes edges into poetry. This is our hero on the phone to Norma back East,
Somewhere between the middle of Missouri and East Providence, Rhode Island, were our words. And the words hung on the line like soft pajamas. And we hung, too, even in the rain.--- Marilyn F. Beckett