The Memory of Running

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Once in a great while, a story comes along that has everything: plot, setting, and, most important of all, the kind of characters that sweep readers up and take them on a thrilling, unforgettable ride. Well, get ready for Ron McLarty's The Memory of Running because, as Stephen King wrote in Entertainment Weekly (Stephen King's “The Pop of King” column for Entertainment Weekly), “Smithy is an American original, worthy of a place on the shelf just below your Hucks, your Holdens, ...

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Overview

Once in a great while, a story comes along that has everything: plot, setting, and, most important of all, the kind of characters that sweep readers up and take them on a thrilling, unforgettable ride. Well, get ready for Ron McLarty's The Memory of Running because, as Stephen King wrote in Entertainment Weekly (Stephen King's “The Pop of King” column for Entertainment Weekly), “Smithy is an American original, worthy of a place on the shelf just below your Hucks, your Holdens, your Yossarians.”

Meet Smithson “Smithy” Ide, an overweight, friendless, chain-smoking, forty-three-year-old drunk who works as a quality control inspector at a toy action-figure factory in Rhode Island. By all accounts, including Smithy's own, he's a loser. But when Smithy's life of quiet desperation is brutally interrupted by tragedy, he stumbles across his old Raleigh bicycle and impulsively sets off on an epic journey that might give him one last chance to become the person he always wanted to be. As he pedals across America—with stops in New York City, St. Louis, Denver, and Phoenix, to name a few—he encounters humanity at its best and worst and adventures that are by turns hilarious, luminous, and extraordinary. Along the way, Smithy falls in love and back into life.

McLarty's novel has already received significant attention for its unusual genesis as an audiobook. Now, in a major publishing event, Viking heralds the arrival of a major new voice in American fiction with his stunning debut, The Memory of Running.

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Editorial Reviews

John McNally
… the novel will doubtless find a wide audience, in large part because Smithy Ide is a character readers will root for. They'll root for him because Ron McLarty clearly loves him. My only hope for McLarty's next novel is that all of his characters, small and large, earn that love.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Smithy Ide is a really nice guy. But he's also an overweight, friendless, womanless, hard-drinking, 43-year-old self-professed loser with a breast fetish and a dead-end job, given to stammering "I just don't know" in life's confusing moments. When Smithy's entire family dies, he embarks on a transcontinental bicycle trip to recover his sister's body and rediscover what it means to live. Along the way, he flashes back to his past and the hardships of his beloved sister's schizophrenia, while his dejection encourages strangers to share their life stories. The road redeems the innocent Smithy: he loses weight; rescues a child from a blizzard; rebuffs the advances of a nubile, "apple-breasted" co-cyclist after seeing a vision of his dead sister; and nurtures a telephone romance with a paraplegic family friend as he processes his rocky past. McLarty, a playwright and television actor, propels the plot with glib mayhem-including three tragic car accidents in 31 pages and a death by lightning bolt-and a lot of bighearted and warm but faintly mournful humor. It's a funny, poignant, slightly gawky debut that aims, like its protagonist, to please-and usually does. Agent, Jeff Kleinman at Graybill & English. (Jan. 3) Forecast: Stephen King hailed this as "the best book you can't read" (it was an audiobook only) in a now-famous 2003 Entertainment Weekly column; a 15-city tour and McLarty's certain stage presence should make plenty of folks sit up and take notice. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Stuck without a publisher for this first novel, actor McLarty did an audio original with Recorded Books that Stephen King raved about in Entertainment Weekly. But how many people know that it was actually librarian Tia Maggio (Middleburg PL, VA) who brought the book to the attention of agent Jeff Kleinman? Maggio fell in love with the tape, used it in a book group (some listeners cried), and even got the author to come and read from the manuscript. "The characters are all so real," she explains of the book's appeal. Eventually, the book was sold to Viking for $2 million, with a Warner's deal and the sale of rights to 12 countries quickly following. Not bad for the gentle tale of washed-up Smithy Ide, who takes an impulsive bike ride across America to search for his sister. A 15-city author tour. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-This is a great first novel. Smithson Ide, 43, is a heavy drinker who weighs 279 lbs. As a teen, his beautiful sister slowly descended into mental illness. The family got him a Raleigh bicycle so that he might find Bethany more quickly when she ran away. Eventually, she disappeared, and the Ides couldn't seem to go on. Smithy begins his story as he learns that his parents have been seriously injured in an accident. At their wake, he finds a letter that states that Bethany's body is in a morgue in Los Angeles. Drunk, dressed in a suit, and with no money, Smithy gets on his bike and begins to pedal west. Readers are hooked once his odyssey begins. He meets unique characters and experiences many perils, and is supported throughout his trip by phone conversations with his neighbor, who has always loved him. The real story, though, is about Smithy's visceral response to the plight of his family, whose dignity has been beaten down because of their years of struggle. In the tradition of literary heroes, Smithy Ide rallies as he rides west to rescue his sister one last time. McLarty's writing is notable for its juxtaposition of humor and heartbreak. Smithy's matter-of-fact tone belies the often surprising and laugh-out-loud situations that he unwittingly falls into. At the same time, readers get a sense of his gentleness as he tries to cope with a world that for the most part treats him badly or ignores him.-Catherine Gilbride, Farifax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The pain of the loser permeates actor/playwright McLarty's first novel, part road story, part tragedy. It was released as an audiobook in 2000. Vital statistics: Smithson Ide is 43, but he's also 279 pounds, having survived for 20 years on beer and pretzels. He once weighed 121, running or biking everywhere. But now (it's 1990) he's a couch potato, single, living in a small Rhode Island town, working in a toy factory. As the story opens, his parents are killed in a car accident. They'd been a close-knit family, and he hates it that he's drunk at the wake, drunk at the funeral. Then he learns that his older sister Bethany is in a Los Angeles morgue, and the shock impels Smithy to heave his fat self onto his childhood bike. His aimless start turns into a cross-country ride, and chapters alternate between his adventures on the road and Bethany's sad history. Somewhere in her teens, she slipped into madness, posing stock-still for hours on end, or raking her skin, or speaking in a vile croak as if possessed by an alien spirit. Sometimes she'd just disappear. There were shrinks and hospital stays, and she recovered enough to date and marry, only to disappear for good on the honeymoon. Smithy has his own problems. He hates to touch or be touched. His only sex has been with ten-dollar whores in Vietnam, where he was badly wounded. Nam and Bethany were too much for him, and the beanpole became a porker filled with self-loathing. The long ride west is good for him, despite bizarre and improbable encounters (a dying AIDS patient, a gun-toting black man). Smithy stops drinking, loses 50 pounds, and is sustained by long-distance conversations with Norma, a wheelchair-bound former neighbor, every bitas lonely as Smithy. The two lost souls will come together in the Los Angeles morgue. A dreary tale of woe, with none of the dark places illuminated. (N.B.: Stephen King has done more than blurb the book. A year ago, after he heard the audio version, he wrote a wildly enthusiastic piece for Entertainment Weekly. Immediately, there was a feeding-frenzy auction, huge advance, etc., etc.)Film rights optioned by Warner Bros., with Ron McLarty as screenwriter. Author tour. Agent: Jeff Kleinman/Graybill & English
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781402594298
  • Publisher: Recorded Books, LLC
  • Publication date: 11/30/2004
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged, 11 CDs, 12 hrs. 30 min.
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 6.26 (h) x 1.59 (d)

Meet the Author

Ron McLarty

Ron McLarty is an award-winning actor and playwright best known for his appearances on television series, including Law & Order, Sex and the City, The Practice, and Judging Amy. He has appeared in films and on the stage, where he has directed many of his own plays.

Biography

Hear the name Stephen King and the likely images that spring to mind are those of vampires, blood-soaked prom queens, and killer St. Bernards. However, for Ron McLarty, Stephen King was more guardian angel than conjurer of terror. McLarty had been a character actor and struggling writer for countless years before the master of the macabre helped him publish his first novel at the age of 58.

Before the publication of The Memory of Running, McLarty was best known as a familiar face on television, holding down regular roles on Spencer: For Hire and Steven Bochco's short-lived prime-time experiment Cop Rock, as well as making appearances on everything from Sex and the City to Law and Order. He also became a regular fixture on the books-on-tape circuit, recording readings of more than 100 books by his own calculations. Meanwhile, McLarty had aspirations to make his way into the other end of the publishing world, composing an increasingly weighty body of unpublished work.

Still having little luck actually getting any of his work in print, McLarty managed to cajole a small Internet-only company called Recorded Books to release a book-on-tape version of his 1988 novel The Memory of Running. Inspired by the death of McLarty's parents following a car accident, The Memory of Running is a funny, moving, grim yarn about an overweight drunken couch potato named Smithson "Smithy" Ide who becomes reengaged in the world during a cross-country bike ride in the wake of the death of his parents and his emotionally-troubled sister.

As far as McLarty was concerned, that was the end of the line for The Memory of Running. Discouraged after years of rejection, he even visited a Screen Actor's Guild appointed psychiatrist to get help with his writing addiction. Still the muse refused to unhand him, and he continued producing new material in vain.

Some time later, Ron McLarty auditioned for a role in the miniseries Kingdom Hospital, Stephen King's U.S. adaptation of Lars von Trier's Danish cult-classic TV series Riget. According to McLarty in his interview with Meet the Writers, the audition was a disaster. "I did the worst audition in the world at the ABC studios. I mean, an actor knows when he stinks, and I was awful," he recalls. "I was trying to run out of the room, and Stephen King stands up and he says, ‘Are you Ron McLarty the novelist?'" At that point, King was only familiar with McLarty by name, having seen it in a catalog while recovering from his own well-publicized collision with a car in 1999. McLarty expeditiously rectified the situation, though. He raced to Recorded Books, dug up a copy of The Memory of Running, and mailed it off to the famed writer.

Next thing McLarty knew, Stephen King included The Memory of Running in a list of "The Best Books You Cannot Read" in an article in Entertainment Weekly. Then came the flood. A publishers bidding war for the rights to the novel ensued, and McLarty signed with Viking for over two-million dollars. Upon its publication in December of 2005, The Memory of Running has deservedly garnered more than its share of glowing notices. The School Library Journal deemed it "a great first novel" and Publisher's Weeky described it as "funny, poignant..." Now his darkly comic tale of self-discovery is being made into a motion picture by esteemed director Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), McLarty himself having penned the screenplay. He also has a second novel on the way.

In spite of McLarty's recent magnificent success, he still has not lost the cynical edge that gave birth to his gloomy debut novel. Though he remains unfailingly thankful for the opportunity afforded him by King's endorsement in Entertainment Weekly, he still has trouble viewing the glass as half-full. "Although I do believe it took kismet for my work to get any credibility, it's important that I express how hard I labored over this novel. I learned from a myriad of failures. I found my voice, lost it and found it again. Sometimes, frankly, it's discouraging to think that this and subsequent work will be viewed by many as luck, as if I sat down one day, popped a beer and scribbled it down... I still have 37 years of the whipped dog in me."

Good To Know

According to McLarty, he has scribed a total of 44 plays and 10 novels. All of his work begins with a poem, which he then develops into a more substantial piece.

McLarty's Stephen King connection does not end with King's recommendation in Entertainment Weekly. He was also the voice chosen to read the book-on-tape version of King's Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      April 14, 1947
    2. Place of Birth:
      Providence, Rhode Island
    1. Education:
      Rhode Island College
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

1

My parents' Ford wagon hit a concrete divider on U.S. 95 outside Biddeford, Maine, in August 1990. They'd driven that stretch of highway for maybe thirty years, on the way to Long Lake. Some guy who used to play baseball with Pop had these cabins by the lake and had named them for his children. Jenny. Al. Tyler. Craig. Bugs. Alice and Sam. We always got Alice for two weeks in August, because it had the best waterfront, with a shallow, sandy beach, and Mom and Pop could watch us while they sat in the green Adirondack chairs.

We came up even after Bethany had gone, and after I had become a man with a job. I'd go up and be a son, and then we'd all go back to our places and be regular people.

Long Lake has bass and pickerel and really beautiful yellow perch. You can't convince some people about yellow perch, because perch have a thick, hard lip and are coarse to touch, but they are pretty fish—I think the prettiest—and they taste like red snapper. There are shallow coves all over the lake, where huge turtles live, and at the swampy end, with its high reeds and grass, the bird population is extraordinary. There are two pairs of loons, and one pair always seems to have a baby paddling after it; ducks, too, and Canada geese, and a single heron that stands on one leg and lets people get very close to photograph it. The water is wonderful for swimming, especially in the mornings, when the lake is like a mirror. I used to take all my clothes off and jump in, but I don't do that now.

In 1990 I weighed 279 pounds. My pop would say, “How's that weight, son?” And I would say, “It's holding steady, Pop.” I had a forty-six-inch waist, but I was sort of vain and I never bought a pair of pants over forty-two inches—so, of course, I had a terrific hang, with a real water-balloon push. Mom never mentioned my weight, because she liked to cook casseroles, since they were easily prepared ahead of time and were hearty. What she enjoyed asking about was my friends and my girlfriends. Only in 1990 I was a 279-pound forty-three-year-old supervisor at Goddard Toys who spent entire days checking to see that the arms on the action figure SEAL Sam were assembled palms in, and nights at the Tick-Tap Lounge drinking beers and watching sports. I didn't have girlfriends. Or, I suppose, friends, really. I did have drinking friends. We drank hard in a kind of friendly way.

My mom had pictures set up on the piano in the home in East Providence, Rhode Island. Me and Bethany mostly, although Mom's dad was in one, and one had Pop in his Air Corps uniform. Bethany was twenty-two in her big picture. She'd posed with her hands in prayer and looked up at one of her amazing curls. Her pale eyes seemed glossy. I stood in my frame like a stick. My army uniform seemed like a sack, and I couldn't have had more than 125 pounds around the bones. I didn't like to eat then. I didn't like to eat in the army either, but later on, when I came home and Bethany was gone and I moved out to my apartment near Goddard, I didn't have a whole lot to do at night, so I ate, and later I had the beer and the pickled eggs and, of course, the fat pretzels.

My parents pulled their wagon in front of cabin Alice, and I helped load up. They were going to drive home to East Providence on the last Friday of our two weeks, and I would leave on Saturday. That way they could avoid all the Saturday traffic coming up to New Hampshire and Maine. I could do the cleanup and return the rented fishing boat. It was one of those good plans that just make sense. Even Mom, who was worried about what I would eat, had to agree it was a good plan. I told her I would be sure to have a nice sandwich and maybe some soup. What I really was planning was two six-packs of beer and a bag of those crispy Bavarian pretzels. Maybe some different kinds of cheeses. And because I had been limiting my smoking to maybe a pack a day, I planned to fire up a chain-smoke, at least enough to keep the mosquitoes down, and think. Men of a certain weight and certain habits think for a while with a clarity intense and fleeting.

I was sitting in the Adirondack chair, drunk and talking to myself, when a state trooper parked his cruiser next to my old Buick and walked down to the waterfront. Black kid about twenty-six or -seven, wearing the grays like the troopers do, fitted and all, and I turned and stood when I heard him coming.

“Great, isn't it?”

“What?” he asked, like a bass drum.

I had leaned against the chair for support, and it wobbled under my weight and his voice.

“The lake. The outside.”

“I'm looking for a Smithson Ide.”

“That would be me,” I said, a drunk fighting to appear straight.

“Why don't you sit down a second, Mr. Ide.”

“I'm not drunk or anything, Officer ... Trooper.... I'm really fine ... not ...”

“Mr. Ide, there's been an accident, and your parents are seriously injured. Outside of Portland. Mr. Ide was taken to the head-trauma unit at Portland General, and Mrs. Ide is at the Biddeford Hospital.”

“My mom? My pop?” I asked stupidly.

“Why don't you come with me, and I'll get you up there.”

“My car ...”

“You come with me, and we'll get you back, too. You won't have to worry about your car.”

“I won't have to worry. Okay. Good.”

I changed into a clean pair of shorts and a T-shirt. The trooper tried very hard not to look at me. I was glad, because people tended to form quick opinions of me when I stood there fat and drunk and cigarette-stained in front of them. Even reasonable people go for an immediate response. Drunk. Fat. A smoky-burned aroma.

The trooper, whose name was Alvin Anderson, stopped for two coffees at the bake shop in Bridgton, then took Route 302 into Portland. We didn't talk very much.

“I sure appreciate this.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Looks like rain.”

“I don't know.”

Pop had already been admitted when Alvin let me out at Emergency.

“Take a cab over to Biddeford Hospital when you're done here. I'll be by later on.”

I watched him drive away. It was about five, and a rain began. A cold rain. My sandals flopped on the blue floor, and I caught my thick reflection stretched against the shorts and T-shirt. My face was purple with beer. The lady at Information directed me to Admitting, where an elderly volunteer directed me to the second-floor trauma unit.

“It's named for L. L. Bean,” he said. “Bugger had it, and he gave it. That's the story.”

A male nurse at the trauma reception asked me some questions to be sure that this Ide was my Ide.

“White male?”

“Yes.”

“Seventy?”

“I ...”

“About seventy?”

“Yes.”

“Artificial valve?”

“Oh, yeah ... about ten years ago, see.... It really made him mad because—”

“Okay. Take this pass and stand on the blue line. That's where the nurse assigned to your father will take you in. There are thirty trauma cells, glass front, usually the curtains are drawn— but sometimes they're not. We ask you, when your nurse comes to take you in, to promise not to look into any of the units other than yours.”

“I promise,” I said solemnly.

I stood on the blue line and waited. I was still drunk. I wished I had put on a baggy sweater and some sweatpants or something, because fat guys are just aware of the way things ride up the crotch, and they've got to always be pulling out the front part of the T-shirt so little breasts don't show through.

The nurse was named Arleen, and she was as round as me. She had on baggy surgical green slacks and an enormous green smock with pockets everywhere. She led me to my pop's cubicle. I didn't look into any of the other ones. I could hear a man saying, “Oh, God. Oh, God,” over and over, and crying, but mostly there was a hushed tone, and when the nurses and doctors hurried about, they sounded like leaves on the ground in the fall with kids walking through them. I was very drunk.

Pop lay out on a tall, metal-framed bed. His head, chest, waist, and ankles had heavy straps over them. Except for a sheet, folded to reach from his belly button to his knees, he was naked. When the nurse closed the door, leaving me alone, I remember thinking that this was the quietest room I had ever been in.

I could hear my heart in my head. The bed had an engine that tilted it very slowly. So slowly, really, that even though it moved Pop from side to side, it didn't seem as if he was moving at all, even though he was. I looked under the bed for the engine, but I couldn't see it.

Pop had some bruises around his eyes and the bridge of his nose, and a Band-Aid over a small hole in his forehead that the nurse told me had been bored to relieve some kind of pressure. Pop used to brag about not knowing what a headache felt like, since he'd never had one, so I thought it was odd he needed that little hole.

I put my hand on top of my pop's. It was a little silly, because Pop was not a hand-holder. Pop was a slapper of backs and a shaker of hands. But putting my hand on top of his seemed all right, and felt strange and good. Later on, after I had some time to think about it, I guessed that when these awful kinds of things happen to you, it helps to find a lot of things to feel good about. They don't have to be big-deal things, but more like the hand business or combing Mom's hair, those kinds of things. They add up.

I'd been alone with my pop for twenty minutes when a doctor came in. He was about my age, only trim and sober. He had thick red-gray hair, and for some reason I used my fingers to comb my own thin and shaggy head.

“Mr. Ide?”

“Yes, sir. Thank you.”

“I'm Dr. Hoffman.”

We shook hands. Then he moved close to Pop's head.

“I put this hole here to relieve the pressure.”

“Thank you so much,” I said sincerely.

I would have given my car to anyone, right there, if I could have been sober.

“He kept himself pretty good, didn't he?” he said. His little flashlight moved from eye to eye.

“My pop walked and stuff.”

Pop swayed imperceptibly on his bed, to the left. The doctor was right. Pop had a great body, and he had a routine to keep it that way. Mom sometimes went up in weight and then got on some diet to lose it, but Pop was really proud of how he kept the old weight at 180, his playing weight.

“Do you know what blood thinners he took for the valve?” Dr. Hoffman asked.

“No. Sorry. It pissed him— He was mad about the heart operation. He worked out, and one day the other doctor said, 'You have to get a new valve in your heart.' But it was because of something that, you know, happened when he was a kid.”

“Rheumatic fever.”

“That's it. Is it bad? Did it break?”

Was I a huge alcoholic trying to be helpful?

“His heart is fine, and I think under normal circumstances your father probably wouldn't be in bad shape right now, except the blood thinners he took to ensure clot-free flow through the heart chambers, and, of course, through the artificial valve, allowed the blood to hemorrhage violently inside his head when he hit the windshield.”

“I see.” I nodded again, stupidly.

“Blood is one of the most toxic entities known. When it gets out of the old veins, well ...”

“I didn't realize that.”

“Do you have anyone else in the immediate family I need to talk to?”

“Bethany, but you can't talk to ... well, no ... me, I guess.”

“Well ...”

“He really looks good. Just those bruises. He does push-ups, too. Walks and stuff.”

“What let's do is this. Why don't we watch what happens tonight, and I'll see you tomorrow, and we'll see.”

“That's great, Doctor. And thank you. Thank you so much.”

I said good-bye to Pop, went down to the main lobby of the hospital, and took a cab to Mom's hospital in Biddeford. It was about fifteen minutes away. A four-cigarette ride. It was pretty cold by now. Usually I don't mind cold nights, but I did this night, and for some reason my hair hurt.

The hospital in Biddeford was new. It was set in a little forest of fir trees and looked nice, not all big and really nervous-making like Portland General. You got a sense of something bad in Portland. The way it smelled. The way you sounded in the crowded corridors, and the way all those people whispered into the banks of phones. Biddeford Hospital was different. There were plants in the reception area, and the retired volunteers seemed happy to see you. You got this good feeling that everything was going to be all right.

Mom was in the third-floor trauma unit. It was small, and, again unlike Portland, the walls were painted in a hopeful blue-sky color. Portland was green. Old green. Reception had called that I was on my way up, and this pretty black girl met me outside the unit's door. She wore standard green pants bunched around her ankles, and running shoes. Her blouse was white, with happy faces on it.

“Hi,” she called out.

“Hi,” I said.

“Are you Jan's son?”

“Yes. I'm Smithy Ide.”

“I'm Toni, I'm one of her nurses. C'mon.”

She didn't tell me about not looking into the rooms, but she didn't have to.

“Jan's in five. She's on a waterbed that tilts.”

“My father is, too.”

“How's he doing?”

“Well, he takes these blood thinners.”

“Aren't you cold?” she asked as we walked.

“I wasn't cold a little while ago.”

Mom was amazingly tiny on this big bed. She was tilted away from me, and I walked over so she could see me. Her eyes were half open.

“Hi, Mom,” I said very quietly. “I'm here now, Mom.”

“We don't think Jan can hear you. She's on a big morphine drip. But we're not sure; maybe some things get through. You can keep talking if you want. Dr. Rosa is Jan's attending physician, but I'm going to give you the rundown, and maybe you can link up with the doctor later.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you so much.”

I pulled the T-shirt away from my sticky breasts and kicked my leg out to loosen my riding-up underwear. I needed a smoke, so I fingered my Winstons.

“There's no smoking, of course,” the pretty nurse said.

“Oh, I know that. Sure. It's important. I was just—”

“At first we were going to keep both of your parents together here, but Portland's head unit is state-of-the-art, and, frankly, we were not comfortable moving Jan. Her lungs collapsed, which is why we are inflating them artificially. Later on we'll wean her from the machine. Both hips are broken, multiple crushed ribs, bruised trachea, dislocated right shoulder. The good news is, no head injury.”

“That's great,” I said.

“Dr. Rosa is Jan's physician.”

“Great.”

“I'll be at the desk if you need me.”

As soon as she left the room, I adjusted my shorts. I sat for about twenty minutes as Mom tilted, and then I got up.

“I'm going now, Mom. What I'm going to do is go back to the camp and pack up the stuff and drive up and get a room or something. I won't be gone long. You rest.”

I waited in the lobby for Trooper Anderson, and after a while I figured he was busy—so I took a cab back to Bridgton. It cost seventy-four dollars. My old Buick was already packed with our summer stuff. The folding chairs, coolers, tackle boxes, et cetera. I cleaned the cabin quickly, then paid Pop's friend who owned the cabins, asked him to return the rented boat for me, and drove back to Portland in the deepest Maine dark ever.

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Reading Group Guide

An Introduction from the Publisher

Sometimes there are moments when a person has to make a decision, as opposed to just letting things just happen. A person then has to happen himself. I have never done this. Life bounced off me, and bounced me, and now it was going to bounce me to death.
--from
The Memory of Running (p. 77)

The Memory of Running is a road novel, the story of one man's journey across America toward personal redemption. It's also a story of families and friendships, a story of mental illness and addiction, a story of Vietnam and AIDS, a story of growing up and growing older, a story of first loves and second chances--in short, a novel that traverses a whole landscape of American themes and preoccupations.

Smithson "Smithy" Ide, the protagonist, has all the makings of a classic American antihero. He's a fat slob in a dead-end factory job who drinks too much, a chain-smoking forty-three-year-old loser lumbering toward an early death. He has no friends, no spouse, no lover--just his elderly parents and a head full of painful memories. When unexpected tragedy strikes, these memories (and a few drinks too many) launch Smithy on an improbable cross-country bicycle odyssey.

The novel interweaves the story of this epic cross-country ride with flashbacks to Smithy's youth and young adulthood. As he pedals toward California, shedding pounds, sidestepping catastrophes, and reconnecting with humanity, we come to see the people and events that pushed Smithy from a happy youth to a middle-aged wreck: his beautiful and beguiling schizophrenic sister, Bethany, who broke his family's heart; his tour of duty in Vietnam, which wounded him inside and out; and his childhood friend Norma, whom Smithy cruelly abandoned after an accident left her paralyzed.

Cycling westward, Smithy gets mistaken for a homeless vagrant, a con man, and a child molester--and gets run over, beat up, and threatened with a gun. But Smithy's essential decency and honesty--his innocence--shine through. As he reaches out to people in trouble he meets along the road, and in turn experiences the kindness of strangers, Smithy begins to face up to his past. He talks to Norma over the phone and finds forgiveness and love. He visits the home of the man who saved his life in Vietnam. And he conjures up his sister, Bethany, who loved him, told him the truth, and ultimately succumbed to her own inner demons.

By the end of his journey, Smithy is finally ready to bury his memories and begin a new life. Literally and figuratively, he has shed the weight of his past. Rediscovering the power of love, reexperiencing the ups and downs of human interaction, and remembering a painful past rather than washing it away with vodka, Smithy has become, almost accidentally, a American hero.

About the Author

Ron McClarty is an actor best known for his work on television shows such as Sex in the City, Law & Order, The Practice, Judging Amy, and Spenser: For Hire. He has also appeared in films and onstage, where he has directed a number of his own plays, and has narrated more than fifty audio books.

Discussion Questions from the Publisher

1. Smithy Ide's bicycle odyssey begins on a whim--something he just falls into--but it winds up transforming his life. Do you think that people can change their lives profoundly without initially intending to do so? What does the novel seem to be saying about redemption and second chances?

2. As a youth, Smithy was a "running boy" who "made beelines," first on foot and later on a bike. His sister, Bethany, was always running away. And Smithy's cross-country ride is yet another kind of running. What other significance does "running" have in the book?

3. The novel intersperses chapters describing Smithy's parents' death and his ride with chapters about his youth. The present chapters are all consecutive, but his memories of the past jump around somewhat. How do the chapters about the past reflect or relate to the story of Smithy's present?

4. At the beginning of the book, Smithy is an alcoholic, and throughout the book he encounters others whose lives have been overwhelmed by alcohol or drugs. What do you think the author is saying about addiction and the stress and strain of daily life? 5. Smithy reads a number of novels about the American West while on the road. How do these relate to his own story?

6. In the book, Smithy's schizophrenic sister, Bethany, goes through periods of near normalcy, only to disappear or hurt herself when she begins to hear "the voice." She is treated by a succession of psychiatrists, none of whom seem to recognize the nature of her problems or to do her much good. Yet Bethany is always the one who tells Smithy the truth. What do you think the author is saying about madness?

7. Smithy came out of Vietnam with twenty-one bullet wounds, yet his sister's madness and disappearances seem to have wounded him much more seriously. Why do you think this is? Why is Smithy haunted by his sister's apparition?

8. On the road, Smithy encounters many people--a compassionate priest, an eccentric Greenwich Village artist, a man dying of AIDS, an angry black youth, a Colorado family, a seductive fellow cyclist, a truck driver haunted by the past, and an empathetic Asian mortician, among others. Most of the encounters are marked by kindness, some by violence, and some by both. How is Smithy changed by the people he meets? What do these people tell us about the American character?

9. As a young man, Smithy rejects Norma's schoolgirl crush on him and turns away from her altogether once she's paralyzed. His junior prom is a disaster. The prostitutes he patronizes in Vietnam hate him. And he rebuffs the advances of an attractive young woman he meets on the road. Why does Smithy seem to have so much trouble with women? Do you think his rekindled romance with Norma will work out?

10. Stephen King has called Smithy Ide an "American original" and placed him in the company of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield (of The Catcher in the Rye), and Joseph Heller's Yossarian (of Catch-22). Are there other fictional characters you would also compare him to?

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 15, 2005

    The quest

    I started reading this book and then we switched to the audio. We listened every day on our daily runs and on one long trip. There is nothing like audio as far as I am concerned and this book is exceptional. I loved the characters - I feel like I could pick them out on the street. I identified with Smithy because a lot of us in this world stuff our pain - sadness and/or anger -down with alcohol or food or gambling or spending - something. I knew how he felt and I wanted him to find himself on the other side of all of it. Every character in this story was rich. Even the ones with the small parts, like the truckdriver. McLarty built them into people I could see in my mind. The story is amazing and I did not want it to end, yet I wanted him to get to where I wanted him to go...and he did. McLarty brought such a richness to the story, too, with his voice and his ability to make each of those characters take on a face and a body in my mind. That is what amazes me about a really good audio. I read somewhere that not everyone could do it and I see that - you would have to be a good actor to pull it off - he is and he does. I hope he has more out there soon because I want to read them. I am in search of the plays now. I have read thousands of books - it is my great escape - but only a few stay with me my whole life and this will be one of them.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 22, 2009

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