Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Book Reviews: Jonoathon Tropper's The Book of Joe and Ron McLarty's The Memory of Running

The Book of Joe 

Author: Jonathan Tropper

The Memory of Running

Author: Ron McLarty

(Blogger Note:  These reviews were previously published in "The LAMLight," the physician newsletter published monthly by The Lynchburg Academy of Medicine.)

“An identity would seem to be arrived at by the way in which the person faces and uses his experience.” – James Baldwin

“It is always the same:  once you are liberated, you are forced to ask who you are.” – Jean Baudrillard

It is purely by happenstance that I read these two books back-to-back.  They both deal with basically the same theme of self-discovery and do so in the setting of similar life-changing circumstances.  The main characters and sub-plots are radically different, however, making these two very dissimilar novels dealing with similar themes.  Both authors have an entertaining style and infuse a good bit of humor into what could have been very maudlin stories.

The main character in Ron McLarty’s The Memory of Running is Smithson “Smithy” Ide, an obese, alcoholic, chain smoking, single Viet Nam war veteran.  He works as a quality control inspector in a toy factory in Rhode Island making sure that action figures are assembled correctly.  As the story begins both of Smithy’s parents are killed in a freak car accident.  While going through his parents’ mail after their funeral he discovers that his only sibling, a mentally ill older sister, has died and her body remains to be claimed in a morgue in Los Angeles.  After a drunken binge Smithy impulsively decides to ride his old red Raleigh bicycle to L.A. to claim his sister’s body.  The story is told by Smithy in the first person and the chapters alternate between his mis-adventurous cross-country bike ride and his turbulent adolescence dealing with his sister’s bizarre behavior.  The sub-plot of major significance involves Smithy’s childhood neighbor Norma, a girl four years his junior who had a persistent crush on him.  Smithy always rebuffed her, especially after an accident left her paraplegic.  Smithy stays in contact with Norma throughout his bike ride and his discussions with her reveal his own self-discovery.  During his trip Smithy is run over by a dying HIV patient, threatened at gunpoint by the son of a Viet Nam war buddy in a ghetto in East St. Louis and is swept into a cross-mountain bike race in California.  Each encounter teaches Smithy something valuable about himself.  The final chapter is exceptional.  Smithy finally accepts himself for who he is, understands the wonder of unconditional love and exorcises the demons guilt and self-recrimination which resulted from his dysfunctional adolescence.

Joe Goffman is the main character in Jonathan Tropper’s The Book of Joe.  Joe is the antithesis of Smithy Ide.  While Smithy is reminiscent of the classic comic character Ignatious Reilly from John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, Joe would seem more in the mold of Sherman McCoy, Tom Wolfe’s “Master of the Universe” from Bonfire of the Vanities.  Joe is in his early thirties and is a successful novelist living in a posh Manhattan apartment.  His first book was an autobiographical novel based on his own adolescence in the small town of Bush Falls, Connecticut.  Because of many revealing and embarrassing details regarding the residents of his hometown he has not returned for seventeen years and has remained estranged from his family.  Joe’s father suffers a severe stroke which prompts Joe to return to Bush Falls and confront all of the unresolved issues from his past.  This is another first person narrative, and Joe alternates between stories and anecdotes from his current visit home and the story of his senior year in high school which was the basis for his sensational novel.  The subplots involve Joe’s high school girlfriend and one true love Carly, and two male best friends.  The two best friends had a homosexual relationship as high school seniors, the reactions to and bitterness arising from which is the centerpiece of Joe’s novel.  Joe’s journey of self-discovery is more of an inward one compared to Smithy’s bike ride, but it is difficult and yet rewarding all the same.  The resolution of all of the subplots is not as satisfying as in The Memory of Running, but Joe does discover a lot about himself over the course of this book and there is hope for the future (and a probable sequel). 

Both of these books are well written: fast paced with excellent dialogue and imagery.  There is a generous dose of humor in both, The Book of Joe containing the more ribald kind.  I enjoyed them both immensely.

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