There are some nit-picky things that I could use to dismiss The Memory of Running. Ron McLarty's first published novel is a bit predictable, full of obvious foreshadowing, and is burdened with structural problems- all of which make it slip up a bit here or there. But I'm going to ignore all that and tell you to read it because despite all my minor quibbles it's still about ten times better than most of the garbage you'll find on the best-seller racks.
McLarty starts us off in the present, as Smithy Ides' parents are killed in a car crash. From here he splits the narrative jumping back and forth from Smithy's current trek across the country on his old red Raleigh to his life growing up with his parents, his wartime experiences, and growing up with his sister and her "voice." A self-confessed fat, alcoholic slob, Smithy is often mistaken for a derelict as he bikes along on his Forrest Gump-style journey, narrating his story.
After his parents have died, Smithy finds a letter informing them that his sister, who had been missing many years, has been found dead in California. Without making any conscious decision to do so he heads west from Rhode Island on his bike to pick up her body and bring it home. Along the way he meets just enough people to give us a good idea of what McLarty's America is: a collection of lost souls on a highway, burdened by their past mistakes, collectively atoning with good deeds and solipsistic reasoning (all of which seems a little too coincidental, but like I said, I'm letting it slide). They are a grim collection but very moving in their own ways and serve in place of the scenery descriptions that usually accompany road-books.
The 'voice' that his sister hears tells her to do things. It's the cause of the most shocking sequences in the book which vary from psychologically disturbing to insinuatingly gruesome. There's more than a little hint of a Stephen King-esque quality to all of this (Mr. King is, incidentally, a great champion of this book) and as Smithy rides along he sees his sister everywhere, pushing him along, encouraging him to discover what he needs to about himself and about her as he continues to ride and continues to go over the past in his mind. Of course, what Smithy does discover about himself is what we all guessed a while ago: that he no longer needs to run from his memories. But that's not really the point. The journey, the 'Hero's Quest" is the point and whether it's inspired by loss or desire what is ultimately attained or resolved can often be hard to quantify. It is the capturing of this allusive, intangibly human quality that makes The Memory of Running so very, very good.
If it weren't overly sentimental and if it were just a little more subtle it would be on a very short list of very great books. Unfortunately it does have these flaws and the ones mentioned previously. However, it does come close to greatness and there's something to be said for that.