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 Ron McLarty
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.
A Conversation with Ron McLarty
Steven Kearney is the prototypical frustrated artist, yet you’re a bestselling author. Are there parallels in your own story and can you relate to his struggles?
It took years for me to understand that the one person you must satisfy when it comes to your attempts at creativity is yourself. I had written ten unpublished novels over a thirty-year period. For the first twenty years I went looking to others for praise rather than making the work it’s own reward. Steven arrived at this truth about the same time I did.
Why did you choose to set your novel in the fictional town of Creedemore as opposed to an existing Colorado town? How do you go about creating a fictional place?
My children worked summers as cowboys on a ranch just outside a small Colorado town, from the time they were twelve through college. A lot of strangely wonderful characters inhabited that town and visited that ranch. Whenever I was with my kids up there and spent time with those folks, I always had the lovely feeling that people were just better than we sometimes think they are. For a writer trying to create a certain mood, I felt I was very lucky to be guided through place and time by those people.
No matter how much of a loser he fancies himself, Steven has Roarke’s loyal support. Do you think artists need at least one champion in order to stay committed to their work?
We all need someone who’s not just passing through. Someone who knows when to be honest and when to hold their own counsel. Roarke, for Steven is representative of certain people who understand that Art isn’t about winning or losing. Often it’s simply about endurance. I’m not sure if artists need a champion as much as someone who views their poems, or their paintings or their performances in the tiniest off-Broadway theatre with love and understanding.
You walk a fine line in this novel between parody and realism, lampooning milieus like the New York theater scene or the Liberty Society meetings without sacrificing your readers’ sympathies for the characters within them. Is it a challenge for you to find this balance?
A writer shouldn’t be an assassin. The characters that drive you story deserve at least understanding. Once you give them that and trust them to tell your story—how can you not love them?
You have created many memorable characters in this novel. What inspired these characters and how did you determine the number you would need to tell the story?
After many years of trial and error, of searching for a path as a storyteller, I discovered that the same cavern of my brain that holds the observations of a lifetime that I try to pull up for the characters I play as an actor, I can rely on as a writer to lead me and fill me. It sounds strange but the quirks and personalities of these folks are driving the train, not me.
The dialogue is one of the joys of reading Art in America—the voices are distinct, believable, and witty. Has your work in the theater, film, and television informed the way you create dialogue?
Again, when I realized that I had not been using my biggest tool—that sense memory of the actor—in my writing, I felt like an idiot. When the light bulb finally went off I felt liberated and able to trust the character to lead me and not the other way around.
With the constant exchange between city folk like Steven, Roarke, and Petey Meyers and the townspeople of Creedemore, you seem to be wrestling with and often resisting regional stereotypes. Was that a conscious part of the writing process and if so, how did you manage it?
In my experience, the only time people from other countries or even regions of one’s own country seem different in the basic drives of life is when you bring preconceived prejudice to the interaction. People are people. Same hopes, fears, desires, demons and dreams. They may indeed express them differently but at the most basic level—they’re the same.
In this novel Steven is at his most productive when he’s in a happy relationship. In your experience, what is the connection between love and the creative process?
Love is connected to EVERYTHING, not just creativity. e.e. cummings says it perfectly:
“love is the every only god
who spoke this earth so glad and big
even a thing all small and sad
man, may his mighty briefness dig”
During his meeting with the humanist-soulist minister Eliphalet Nott, Steven comes to the conclusion that, “Even God up here isn’t black and white.” Was that a kind of credo for you in writing this novel?
The Episcopal Eliphalet Nott was searching—groping really—to figure out his place. When it comes to the nature of God, I have to guess that He/She is probably unknowable. I don’t have a credo about it except for being suspicious anytime mere mortals feel empowered to explain God’s plan. It’s enough to know that there are trees and dogs in the world.
All of your characters have something to say about art and the art that seems to be most successful in this book are the writings and paintings that speak to the people. Is populist appeal a concern for you in your own work?
I think there’s room in our wildly diverse tastes for many forms to flourish. But neither acclaim nor neglect makes Art good—it stands on it’s own for one to connect to or not on a very personal level. But popular art often gets a bad rap that isn’t always deserving. A few years ago I visited the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. where the rooms overflowed with his breathless rendering of American life—simple and profound. From the factory worker rising to speak at a town meeting to the little girl, flanked by U.S. Marshals desegregating an Alabama school. Sometimes it takes a lot of living to see the deep beauty not only in nature but in Art—and someone as popular as Norman Rockwell is not so easily dismissed if you look closely enough.
Questions for Discussion
Before Chapter 23, Ron McLarty includes a quote from Carl Jung: “The lives of artists are as a rule unsatisfactory—not to say tragic—because of their inferiority on the human and personal side—there is hardly any exception to the rule that a person must pay dearly for the divine gift of creative fire.” How does this quote relate to the story? Is it true for Steven Kearney and the other artists in the book?
What are the qualities in Molly Dowie that attract Steven? What does he learn from her?
During his residency, Steven Kearney puts together a “word mural” representing the past and present of Creedemore. What are the major themes of the word mural and how does history repeat itself?
The battle over water rights in Creedemore divides the residents across class and geographical lines, in some cases pitting the educated urbanites against the original townsfolk. How does this issue ultimately get resolved?
Though Steven is the writer in residence, he often depends on the women in his life, Molly and Roarke, to help him execute and explain his work to others. Does he need them to do this, and if so, why?
Both Petey Myers and Ticky Lettgo are emotionally haunted by people they loved and lost. How do these losses or memories guide their actions?
Miss Wilma Kirk has dedicated herself to supporting the arts and she is convinced that art can heal individual and communal pain. How does art—Steven’s word mural, Mollie’s paintings, Cowboy Bob’s poems—help this particular community?
In the prologue, McLarty has provided the body of Steven Kearney’s work. What do the descriptions of his unpublished works tell the reader about this character?
In the beginning of the book, Steven’s girlfriend dumps him and he appears to be emotionally paralyzed. How is he transformed by the story’s end?
Did you come away from this novel believing that Steven Kearney was a successful writer? Did it matter to you?