Pop Of King (3) – The Best Book You Can’t Read – (19 września 2003)

My gig at EW isn’t writing book reviews, but I can still state with a fair degree of certainty that Ron McLarty’s ”The Memory of Running” is the best novel you won’t read this year. But you can experience it, and I’m all but positive that you’ll thank me for the tip if you do.

”Memory” is the story of 279-pound Smithson Ide, a smokes-too-much, drinks-too-much, eats-too-much heart attack waiting to happen. I mean, this guy is a mess — a lovely, addled mess. And then one day, Smithy finds himself riding across America with his ”fat ass” hanging over the seat of his boyhood bicycle. He’s on his way from Rhode Island to L.A. — where he aims to retrieve his sister’s body from the county morgue — and along the road he meets a parade of colorful characters. Unlike Huck Finn’s adventures, Smithy’s don’t amount to literature, but they are always entertaining and sometimes wildly funny.

So why can’t you read it? Because — so far, at least — no publisher will touch it with a 10-foot pole. Publishing houses, once proudly independent, are today little more than corporate wampum beads, their cultural clout all but gone. Novels that were neither dopey best-sellers (think James Patterson) nor dull ”serious fiction” (think William Gaddis, Paul Auster, and their overpraised ilk) were one of the first things to go when the conglomerates took over. Dull or dopey: These days that’s pretty much your choice at the bookstore.

What place does that leave for Ron McLarty (an actor, playwright, and chronic insomniac who scribbled the tale of Smithy Ide in the wee hours of the morning, on a succession of yellow legal pads)? There should be a place, because — you’ll just have to trust me on this, at least for the time being — Smithy is an American original, worthy of a place on the shelf just below your Hucks, your Holdens, and your Yossarians. And, thanks to a combination of luck and plain old coincidence, there is a place.

One of Ron McLarty’s day jobs, you see, is narrating for Recorded Books, a company that’s been producing unabridged novels on audio since 1979. His boss is a woman named Claudia Howard, and one day four years ago McLarty showed Howard his novel, which had been turned down ”by the best in the business,” as we say. She was charmed by Smithy and horrified by the fact that such a fine novel should not only not find an audience but not even find a chance to find one (if you see what I mean). So Howard did what she could do, which was to issue ”The Memory of Running” as a Recorded Book.

Which brings us to how you can experience the book: Visit http://www.recordedbooks.com and buy or rent the CD or cassette version of the book, as voiced by McLarty himself. This is why I say it may be the best book you won’t read this year. You might listen to it on your Discman while jogging, or in your car while you’re going to see Aunt Doris in Des Moines, but you won’t actually read it. (I’m not even sure if the hero’s Smithy or Smithie, because I’ve never seen his name in print.)

Recent publishing history is full of worthy novels that were published only by the skin of their teeth. J.K. Rowling’s maiden ”Harry Potter” voyage was one. Then there’s the sad case of John Kennedy Toole’s ”A Confederacy of Dunces,” published only after the despairing author had killed himself. (It then reached the best-seller list, which may or may not have been of some comfort to his surviving relatives.) The moral? It’s a jungle out there, baby, and in a world where the corporate bottom line is god (or maybe the word I’m searching for is mammon), the strong survive but the worthy often do not.

That ”The Memory of Running” has found its own little performance stage is a miracle. I hope it won’t be a wasted miracle. What I hope is that you’ll order a copy and experience it for yourself; I hope, in fact, that EW readers will inundate Recorded Books with orders for Smithy (Smithie?) Ide’s adventures. Let’s make a little history here, what do you say? If that happens, the book probably will be published — remember the corporate motto of the ’90s and the double zeros: Money talks, bulls— walks. This is a book that can do more than walk; it has a chance to be a breakout best-seller. No, it’s not literature (please remember I said that), but it’s bighearted and as satisfying as one of your mom’s home-cooked Sunday dinners.

So why not ride across America with Smithy and root for him as he loses weight, falls in love, and rediscovers life? You’ll be striking a blow for the good old American novel. More important, you’ll do the stuff good novels are supposed to make you do — laugh a little, cry a little, maybe ride (or jog) an extra time around the block in order to find out what happens next. You’ll also discover a fine American voice and actually get to hear it talking. Do I want some of the credit if this nice thing happens?

You know I do.

Tell ’em Steve sent you.