Time Warner Books, £10.00
For lovers of books about losers on the rebound and road trips, character actor Ron McLarty's debut novel sounds like a must-read.
Smithson 'Smithy' Ide, 279 pounds of middle-aged regret, heavy drinking and emotional solitude, has just lost both his elderly parents in a car crash. While taking care of their affairs, he finds an unopened letter, addressed to his father, which says that the body of Smithy's long-lost, mentally ill sister Bethany has been found in Los Angeles. The once-beautiful Bethany was tormented by 'The Voice', which turned her life from one of potential into chaos and effectively stopped the clock on Smithy's and his parents' once she disappeared.
In a drunken stupor, Smithy goes out to the garage and dusts off his old Raleigh. He teeters down the street on it and the next thing he remembers is waking up a few miles away. He keeps going - all the way to Los Angeles. On his quest he meets a mentally ill artist in New York, a man dying of AIDS in Indiana, the family of the black soldier who saved his life during Vietnam in St Louis and many other people, all trying to make sense of life as best they can.
The descriptions of Smithy's travels can often make you want to get a bike and follow his route, but two problems mean that 'The Memory of Running' also has passages which feel like a climb up a mountain on a three-speed bike. The first is that McLarty's structure of following a chapter from the present with one from Smithy's past gives his book a stop-start dynamic which becomes infuriating long before journey's end. The second is Smithy's long-distance phone relationship with Norma, his parents' wheelchair-bound next door neighbour who has loved him since they were children. Smithy's calls to Norma are too heavy on schmaltz and don't form a connection between the reader and the two of them in the way that they should. As a character, she just doesn't work.
Having lost both his own parents in a car accident, there is a poignancy to McLarty's writing and success (after years of being unpublished he sold the book rights for $2m and the film rights for $1m) which stay with you throughout Smithy's travels and after he's reached his destination. With passages as rich and beautifully-written as Smithy's discovery of a trucker's life story, it's not an issue of disliking 'The Memory of Running', just knowing that it could have been better.
Its central message is that life sometimes doesn't turn out the way you would've hoped. That goes for books too.