A VIKING READER'S GUIDE
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.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
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?
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?
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?
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?
Smithy reads a number of novels about the American West while on the road. How do these relate to his own story?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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 (ofCatch-22). Are there other fictional characters you would also compare him to?