One of the curiously unexpected aspects of deep and prolonged grief is an unnerving sense of becoming unmoored from your life.
One minute all the touchstones are in place, the things that give your life a sense of time, place and meaning, and the next? One crucial piece is missing and try as you might to make it work without that, everything seems off, like your own existence isn’t even yours anymore.
That’s how I felt when my dad died, and it’s very much what happens in The Memory of Running to Smithson “Smithy” Ides, a 43-year-old obesely-overweight Vietnam War veteran who in 1990 loses his mother and father to an horrific car accident, and his sister to her mental health issues which left her living as a homeless person on the streets of Los Angeles until her untimely death in her early ’50s.
Grappling with one death, one piece of life’s building blocks being pulled away, is hard enough but in a very short space of time, Smithy, who uses alcohol, over-eating and social isolation to deal with the issues (he doesn’t think he has) resulting from a near-death experience in Vietnam, loses his entire family.
It’s a devastating blow, how can it not be, and one night he simply jumps on his childhood Raleigh bike, and cycles without wallet or any kind of preparation – remember this is an impulsive emotional reaction borne of overwhelming, unfathomable grief – out of East Providence, Rhode Island for faraway L.A., his mind on only one thing … to get away from his untethered life which no longer feels like his own.
“I felt a shortness or an absence of breath for a second, and this weird feeling of panic spread out of my chest and covered me. I stood up from the kitchen table and walked out to the porch and air. I found some, and I breathed it. Then I walked back to the kitchen and the Los Angeles letter. I read the first part again, but I was too drunk to finish it, so I folded the letter, put it in my pants pocket, and walked back to the porch. That’s when I saw her again.” (P. 61)
At this point, you might be thinking this is all very Forrest Gump-like but really, the running across America bit aside, that’s all these two two stories have in common, plot-wise at least.
What they do share is a sense that in the maelstrom of emotions that follows a traumatic life event that often the best thing is leave what remains of your life and figure it all out someplace else.
Or in Smithy’s case, a whole lot of someplace elses.
As he cycles from one side of the States to the other, Smithy, who is a sweet, caring guy who was devoted to his sister and parents but who lost his way in life and never quite made it back, comes into contact with an array of diverse people.
Some are kind, some are quirky and some are just plain cruel; what all have in common is that they teach Smithy a life lesson or two but not in any sort of overhanded cloying kind of way.
The Memory of Running is refreshingly free of manipulative emotion or overdone lessons; this is thanks in large part to Smithy himself who is intelligent and emotionally self-aware at heart but who takes some time to find those qualities again, his true self emerging more and more as the considerable bulk of weight he’s been carrying falls away from him.
His epiphanies are small but deeply meaningful and none more so than when he realises that he is in love with Norma, his neighbour across the road who was pretty much a member of his family growing up.
Following an accident where she is hit by a car and becomes a paraplegic, Norma and the Ides almost become estranged, no one quite sure how to deal with the changed dynamic.
Smithy regrets the distance of course but isn’t sure how to tackle bridging it so long after the event, he and his parents attention taken up in large part by his sister Bethany whose mental health issues – it’s never explicitly-stated what she is dealing with exactly but she has hear what the family called “the voice” which causes to strip off, wander away for hours or days at a time and loses all sense of who is – dominate the rhythm and days of their lives.
Smithy as noted though is deep down a self-aware guy and knows that they made a mess of the aftermath of Norma’s injury, effectively abandoning one family member, for that’s what she was in reality, for another.
It takes the death of his family, and the time that being on the road offers him to make peace with what happened to Norma and him and for them, via phone calls on the road – remember this is the age before mobiles so it’s all payphones or nothing – to establish a rapport that confirms that the emotional closeness of their childhood has turned into something quite wonderful in their once-estranged adulthood.
“Somewhere crickets rubbed their legs together. I was happy at least that that night our backyard crackled into the night and left silence behind. We sat and listened to the evening. I thought about Norma, and I had a feeling she was watching. I will never understand, really, why the Ides left our little Norma there. It seems too easy to put it on Bethany. To say we didn’t have any more to give or be for anyone else, even our Norma behind venetian blinds, is not enough. I will never understand.” (P. 211)
As Smithy gets closer and closer to L.A. and draws ever closer in heart, if not geographically to Norma far away on the east coast, many of the demons that have dogged him, with or without his recognition of their presence, slowly find some kind of peace or resolution.
It’s therapy by bike effectively, an accidental purging of the old and the building up of the new that McLarty invests with a huge amount of beautifully-articulated emotional resonance.
So exquisitely well-wrought is Smithy as a character and so affecting are the various aspects of his sojourn across the country and so life-changing for good or ill are the people he encounters that you fall in love with the protagonist of The Memory of Running (the title refers to the way he ran and biked at great speed in his pre-war youth) almost as completely as Norma.
If you have ever suffered the loss of someone near and dear to you, and struggled with the sense that your life and its hitherto comforting setting are no longer your own, then you will find much to appreciate and love in this beautiful, touching book which feels very real and true even in those moments where the narrative feels a little too neat.
Honestly, with writing as good as McLarty’s, you don’t begrudge any of the subtle contrivances of a plot which is, after all, about grief, how we deal with it whether it’s long-gestating or sudden (Smithy has both), and how we come back from the precipice it leads us to in the wild and messy place where the strange discomforts of loss and grieving come face-to-face with our day-to-day life leaving us struggling to find a way forward and wondering how we’ll ever truly live again.