Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
"Sometimes there are moments when a person has to make a decision,
as opposed to just letting things just happen. A person then has to happen
himself. I have never done this. Life bounced off me, and bounced me, and now
it was going to bounce me to death." from The Memory of Running
The Memory of Running is a road novel, the story of one man's
journey across America toward personal redemption. It's also a story of
families and friendships, a story of mental illness and addiction, a story of
Vietnam and AIDS, a story of growing up and growing older, a story of first
loves and second chancesin short, a novel that traverses a whole landscape
of American themes and preoccupations.
Smithson "Smithy" Ide, the protagonist, has all the makings of a
classic American antihero. He's a fat slob in a dead-end factory job who
drinks too much, a chain-smoking forty-three-year-old loser lumbering toward
an early death. He has no friends, no spouse, no loverjust his elderly
parents and a head full of painful memories. When unexpected tragedy strikes,
these memories (and a few drinks too many) launch Smithy on an improbable
cross-country bicycle odyssey.
The novel interweaves the story of this epic cross-country ride with
flashbacks to Smithy's youth and young adulthood. As he pedals toward
California, shedding pounds, sidestepping catastrophes, and reconnecting with
humanity, we come to see the people and events that pushed Smithy from a happy
youth to a middle-aged wreck: his beautiful and beguiling schizophrenic
sister, Bethany, who broke his family's heart; his tour of duty in Vietnam,
which wounded him inside and out; and his childhood friend Norma, whom Smithy
cruelly abandoned after an accident left her paralyzed.
Cycling westward, Smithy gets mistaken for a homeless vagrant, a con man,
and a child molesterand gets run over, beat up, and threatened with a gun.
But Smithy's essential decency and honestyhis innocenceshine through. As
he reaches out to people in trouble he meets along the road, and in turn
experiences the kindness of strangers, Smithy begins to face up to his past.
He talks to Norma over the phone and finds forgiveness and love. He visits the
home of the man who saved his life in Vietnam. And he conjures up his sister,
Bethany, who loved him, told him the truth, and ultimately succumbed to her
own inner demons.
By the end of his journey, Smithy is finally ready to bury his memories and
begin a new life. Literally and figuratively, he has shed the weight of his
past. Rediscovering the power of love, reexperiencing the ups and downs of
human interaction, and remembering a painful past rather than washing it away
with vodka, Smithy has become, almost accidentally, a American hero.
The novel intersperses chapters describing Smithy's parents' death and
his ride with chapters about his youth. The present chapters are all
consecutive, but his memories of the past jump around somewhat. How do the
chapters about the past reflect or relate to the story of Smithy's
At the beginning of the book, Smithy is an alcoholic, and throughout the
book he encounters others whose lives have been overwhelmed by alcohol or
drugs. What do you think the author is saying about addiction and the
stress and strain of daily life?
Smithy reads a number of novels about the American West while on the
road. How do these relate to his own story?
In the book, Smithy's schizophrenic sister, Bethany, goes through
periods of near normalcy, only to disappear or hurt herself when she
begins to hear "the voice." She is treated by a succession of
psychiatrists, none of whom seem to recognize the nature of her problems
or to do her much good. Yet Bethany is always the one who tells Smithy the
truth. What do you think the author is saying about madness?
Smithy came out of Vietnam with twenty-one bullet wounds, yet his
sister's madness and disappearances seem to have wounded him much more
seriously. Why do you think this is? Why is Smithy haunted by his sister's
On the road, Smithy encounters many peoplea compassionate priest, an
eccentric Greenwich Village artist, a man dying of AIDS, an angry black
youth, a Colorado family, a seductive fellow cyclist, a truck driver
haunted by the past, and an empathetic Asian mortician, among others. Most
of the encounters are marked by kindness, some by violence, and some by
both. How is Smithy changed by the people he meets? What do these people
tell us about the American character?
As a young man, Smithy rejects Norma's schoolgirl crush on him and turns
away from her altogether once she's paralyzed. His junior prom is a
disaster. The prostitutes he patronizes in Vietnam hate him. And he
rebuffs the advances of an attractive young woman he meets on the road.
Why does Smithy seem to have so much trouble with women? Do you think his
rekindled romance with Norma will work out?
Stephen King has called Smithy Ide an "American original" and
placed him in the company of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, J. D.
Salinger's Holden Caulfield (of The Catcher in the Rye), and Joseph
Heller's Yossarian (of Catch-22). Are there other fictional
characters you would also compare him to?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Penguin.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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