Memory of Running (McLarty)

The Memory of Running
Ron McLarty, 2005
Penguin Group USA
384 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780143036685

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. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—April 14, 1947
Where—Providence, Rhode Island, USA
Education—Rhode Island College
Currently—lives in New York, New York

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. (From the publisher.)

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had aspirations to make his way into the other end of the publishing world, composing an increasingly weighty body of unpublished work.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."

From a 2005 Barnes & Noble interview:

• 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.

When asked what book most influenced hiw career as a writer, here's what he said:

I was most influenced as a writer (and as an actor) by the collected poems of Kenneth Patchen. The poems flow from his imagination into your own imagination. A kind of truth as he saw it. I wanted to put my own inventions on paper so they might become real.

("More" and "Extras" from Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews
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.
John McNally - Washington Post

In The Memory of Running, professional actor and long aspiring novelist Ron McLarty has invented a character so fully and elegantly defined that the book soars with originality and life.
San Francisco Chronicle

Captivating.... McLarty unspools passage after passage of devastating grace and melancholy, and his taciturn hero hooks himself to your heart.
Entertainment 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. 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.
Publishers Weekly

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.
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
School Library Journal

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 bit as 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.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
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?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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