Wednesday May 27th, 2009

The Lonely Pursuit

Once a Runner by John L. Parker, Jr.
Scribner, 288 pp., $24.00

What does it mean that the proclaimed “best novel ever written about running” (Runner’s World said it, and others have implied it) is in fact an average novel? John L. Parker, Jr., the author of Once a Runner, has said that when he wrote the book in the late 1970s, he “felt running needed its own literature.” Last month, Once a Runner was republished in an attractive hardcover edition, elevating this originally self-published, previously hard to find and even harder to afford paperback to the status of “available wherever books are sold,” and it promptly hit the New York Times bestseller list. The 100,000 paperback copies sold and the oft-applied label of “cult classic” testify to the book’s appeal, but did Parker actually foster a literature of running? Once a Runner — or any novel about running that has followed, for that matter — has never won the critical acclaim that Bernard Malamud’s The Natural and Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It (anchors of the respective canons of baseball and fishing literature) have.

Set at a fictional Florida university during the early ’70s, Once a Runner tells the story of Quenton Cassidy, who drops out of college in his quest to break four minutes in the mile and win the event at a major international invitational on campus. The first half of the novel covers a lot of ground, describing his training, establishing the backdrop of the university, introducing the coaches, leading us through Quenton’s brief romance with a young woman, and describing the school’s pervasive culture of ignorance and conservatism. While the youthful hijinks of the athletes may have a nostalgic appeal to those who once competed, certain scenes and characters feel included on a whim. Parker spends six pages on head trainer Brady Grapehouse before he arrives at a point, which is the trainer’s one-sentence assessment of Quenton: “He’s one of the foxes and I’d like to see him uncaught until he hits his stride.” Grapehouse never appears in the book again. (That’s a shame, since he’s a character with more potential than the cartoonish football coach and the university president.)

Much has been said about the poetic quality of the passages focused on running, where Parker puts us right in the slipstream of Quenton’s thought patterns as he trains and races. Parker himself has attributed this strength to authenticity; in writing the novel, he exploited his own insider experience and perspective as a former champion collegiate runner. And it’s true that any runner — sub-four-minute miler or no — who has raced as hard as possible can understand when Parker writes things like, “He ran not for crypto-religious reasons, but to win races, to cover ground fast. Not only to be better than his fellows, but better than himself.” Or, “He grooved his mind upon the thin platinum rail of his task, a line that stretched out in front of him and disappeared into the gloom, further than he could contemplate all at once, even if he had the desire to, which he did not.” Sometimes, Parker is direct and succinct: “[Running] made him weary beyond comprehension. But it also made him free.” At other times, he lets a scene present the mystery and glory of running without elaboration. My favorite example of this approach comes when Quenton and a friend encounter a herd of horses on an early-morning run.

All of this poetry in motion is a blessing and a curse. The runner in me is a sucker for the stream-of-consciousness meditations on pain, mental toughness and motivation. But most readers will notice that all of Quenton’s workouts, meets, races and conversations with others about what his training means are hung on a sapling of a plot. Without much of a story, the book relies on immersion in the physical for its force, including two terrific scenes toward the end. Quenton’s epic nighttime workout of 60 quarter-miles is his moment of ultimate knowing — arguably, the book’s climax. His sole reason for existence is the upcoming mile race, but those 60 quarters are the fire that forges him. After that dramatic travail, I waited to see how Parker could possibly top it. The final race scene, which lasts for nine pages, comes close, drawing out the suspense as best it can, given that the outcome is fairly predictable.

Once a Runner has snob appeal — but of the athletic, not literary, variety. It does open a window onto the dedication of a world-class runner, shows us his pain, his tedium and exultation. But if it succeeds in that goal, it also falls short of literature. It may be that there is something intrinsic to running — even though it’s one of the most elemental human activities — that defies the universality of the best novels. Though some runners compete on a team, most do not. By its nature, theirs is a solitary pursuit. The struggle is internal, and glory for them doesn’t always correspond directly to sorrow for someone else. It’s not Parker’s fault that three decades have passed without another novel showing up to challenge Once a Runner’s somewhat dubious status as the best running book on the shelf. He wanted to get the genre started on its way. Time will tell if some future writer can get it across the finish line.

Tavia Kowalchuk is a runner whose writing suffers from her job in the publishing industry.

Books mentioned in this review:

Once a Runner
A River Runs Through It
The Natural