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Onyx reviews: The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty

Ron McLarty's publishing career got a big boost recently when Stephen King devoted one of his Entertainment Weekly columns to "the best novel you won't read this year." McLarty wrote The Memory of Running fifteen years ago but was unable to find a publisher willing to take on this meandering, touching tale of a man in his mid-forties who suddenly emerges from years of alcohol and television-induced catatonia. Recorded Books signed McLarty to make an audio version of his novel, which is how King learned of it.

Smithy Ide grew up in Rhode Island, where he was the skinny kid who didn't make much of an impression. He was nice enough, but the kind of person who fades into the background. His parents—and he—had to devote much of their energy to his older sister, Bethany, a schizophrenic who sometimes stripped naked and went into prolonged stationary poses in public, and regularly went missing. She attempted suicide at least once and committed acts of self-mutilation.

When the story opens, Smithy is supervisor of a toy assembly line, drinking and smoking in front of the television at night. He has no friends and no significant relationships other than his parents. He did his time in Vietnam without firing his weapon once, scared to death during his entire tour.

The once-skinny kid now weighs close to three hundred pounds. If he were more self aware, he'd embarrassed himself.

A series of family losses spurs Smithy into a voyage of self-rediscovery. He takes the old bicycle he used to ride tirelessly when he was young out for a ride one night while drunk. This ill-advised outing turns into a cross-country bicycle odyssey during which Smithy wakes up to the world. He rediscovers small pleasures, like reading, the taste and texture of bananas, camping in the open.

Smithy is so unassuming that people open up to him. A priest who thinks Smithy is homeless takes him into his home and buys him clothing and food while confessing his personal weaknesses and failings. An AIDS patient strikes Smithy with his car and the hospital staff mistakenly thinks Smithy is bringing the driver to the emergency room instead of vice versa. Timid and submissive, Smithy retreats to a vacant examining room and treats his own injuries.

The book flow backward and forward through time, full of unexpected juxtapositions. It's almost free association, but there's a canny logic behind the segues. A scene where a doctor yells at him when she thinks he's taking advantage of a sick man transitions to his memory of being shot in Vietnam. In both vignettes he's a victim of undeserved violence.

King's column got McLarty a two-book publishing deal and a movie option. However, McLarty's audio narration, which is currently the only format the book is available in—may be the ideal way to experience this wonderful novel. McLarty—Sgt. Belson from TV's Spenser for Hire—is a terrific reader, adopting distinctive voices for the book's many colorful characters—and the first person narrative rolls off his tongue like a confessional as Smithy ruefully reflects on his life's shortcomings and triumphs. Many of his anecdotes are laugh-out-loud hilarious, but McLarty's sheer power of observation about the human condition is what turns this complex and textual story into a heartwarming tale.

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