25 June 2006

Someone Else's Fiction

A younger friend began bicycle touring last summer. He has a young family - a bit older than my kids were when I took my first trip, but still at the age where a wife and mother might reasonably ask "do you have to?" So anyway, we had lunch recently just to talk cycling and touring. I wondered what brought about this new passion. (His first trip was a hoot ... totally unprepared for the realities of touring; but by the end of summer he was fully equipped and making road repairs.)

It was a novel brought it on. Which in itself is very cool. So, as I really dig cycling literature, I took the name and author. This week I had occasion to do a day-long round-trip to Seattle, on which I took "The Memory of Running" by Ron McLarty. It was a rare day, to read an entire novel. And it was a rare novel - beautiful, sad, sadly beautiful, and compelling.

Smithy Ide narrates the story of his bike ride across the country - Rhode Island to New York City to Los Angeles. If that alone is enough to pique your interest, read no farther. [except maybe to check out the caveats below] I mean, hey! it was enough for me.

I don't think it will spoil the plot to say that the book starts almost unbearably sad, as the 40-something loser Smithy loses both his parents in an auto accident. As the story unfolds we also meet Bethany, his long-lost sister - who is in many ways the focus of his entire family history. Mental illness and tragedy mark the Ide family history. As Smithy reels from all this he finds his old Raleigh 3-speed, rides off drunk, wakes up the next morning at his old fishing hole, and through the rest of the story never returns home. I don't think that spoils anything for those who may want to read this.

As Smithy makes his way across country, he unfolds the family history which is really Bethany's story. The story is almost unbearably sad, yet with some episodes and descriptions that made me laugh out loud. Most touchingly, his encounters with people are generally filled with grace and surprising goodness. Sure, bad things happen, but here's the general thrust of his portrait of America:
"Lots of people, though. Most don't steal."
"Most people are really nice," I said.
"Most people are the best," she said, with a wonderul smile.

Anyway, it's been a while since I've been bowled over by a novel. If you like cycling literature, don't fail to look up this one. [There, now that sounds like a grade school book report!]

A couple of fun things about the novel:
* Smithy is short for Smithson Ide. It sounds like a name I'd make up from a freeway exit sign.
* Caveats - there are disturbing images of mental illness, and some pretty rough language. Not surprisingly, a lot of the language is in the episodes of mental illness. There's a segment of disgusting car sex which I would like to not have read. Just so you know.
* As previously stated, though, it's been a long time since I've been bowled over by a novel.

Cycling literature. When you can't ride ... read about riding!

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