I feel a little silly putting up a review for a book that’s over thirty years old, but then again, if there’s a book that deserves to be on this site, which is primarily about writing and running, it’s this one: a book written by a runner about running.
No, not Born to Run. This is Once a Runner, by John L. Parker, Jr.
I had heard about this book several times over the last couple of years since I’ve started running. It’s been touted as one of the best books ever written about running by Runners’ World magazine. Other readers have said that the book changed their whole perception of running and runners. And the accolades stretch out like miles on a dusty highway. So when a fellow runner — a race director at a local event I’ve run four times now — offered to loan me the book, I happily accepted. “I’ve bought this book five times,” he said, with a hint of admonition in his voice, “because nobody I’ve loaned it to has returned it.” Presumably, I figured, that’s because the book was so awesome that they kept it to read again and again.
I devoured the book in about five nights, which is pretty good for me. I do most of my reading right before bed, and I go as far as I can manage before I descend into the dreamland that can only come to a parent of two, which is to say, sleep comes on fast and hard.
So, let’s get into it.
The book is an absolute joy to read.The prose is gorgeous, playing off the brain like a mountain stream wending its way across pebbles and fallen branches. The characters are larger than life, and seem ready to step off the page and into the real world. The book is fictional, but the characters feel like they must be caricatures of real people, owing to their completeness and strangeness.
The book also captures something which is pretty difficult to accurately convey — the simultaneous despair, pain, joy, and calm that a distance runner feels in the midst of a run long enough to make the average person’s eyes go glassy. Parker is a poet when it comes to this stuff:
Running to him was real; the way he did it the realest thing he knew. It was all joy and woe, hard as diamond; it made him weary beyond comprehension. But it also made him free.
And he somehow maintains that level of tone, that balance between philosophical meditation and gritty truth grinder, for the entire book.
It’s a good thing the book is such a joy to read, because narratively, I found it to be a mess. The primary conflict doesn’t begin until almost two-thirds of the way into the book. Instead, the first half and change of the book is given over to anecdotes of the track team and its follies and foibles. Now, those stories are good, and as I mentioned above, they are beautifully written, but as a contemporary reader, it’s incredibly frustrating, and by the third or fourth chapter, I found myself wondering just where the hell is this story going? I had to check the book jacket to see what the blurb said the book was all about: a collegiate runner who gets kicked off his school team and then returns to run the race of his life. Okay, great. But by the halfway point of the book, the main character is still on the team. When your inciting incident takes more than half the book to happen, that’s a problem, and it’s one that no amount of beautiful language can make me look past.
Worse, the first half of the book doesn’t seem to connect in any meaningful way with the second, outside of introducing the characters. Parker spends enough time on five or six characters to make us believe they matter to the narrative, but ultimately only three do: Quenton, the protagonist and the same prodigal runner from the blurb above; Bruce, another runner and ultimately Quenton’s mentor; and Prigman, the hard-nosed athletic director who kicks Quenton off the team. Everybody else is just window dressing, alternately dispensing roadside philosophy or helping Quenton pull off pranks in the athletic dorms. It’s all amusing, even at times inspiring, but again, it’s all tangential to the main plot, and I ended up feeling cheated by having been forced to take stock in all these characters that came to nothing in the end. And if there’s one thing I hate as a reader, it’s having my time wasted.
As I look back over my thoughts on this book, the word that jumps out at me the most is “frustrated.” That’s pretty telling. It’s been a while since I’ve been so conflicted about a book while reading it, and I’m still conflicted now, writing about it. Because I’m torn about it. Being a runner, I really wanted to enjoy it. And I did… but as a writer, I couldn’t get past the flaws in plot, structure, and pacing. Then again, I liked the book enough to burn through it in just a few days.
And as I ponder my own thoughts on the book, I read other reviews and see some people gushing over it, and others, like me, sort of holding their noses and suffering through it. On the whole, though, people seem to like it. So maybe I’m being too harsh, but I like to think that I’m holding the stories I read to a not-unreasonable standard of cohesion and unity.
What it comes down to, I think, is that if you like sports movies and sports books, you’ll probably enjoy this. The descriptions of running in general — Quenton’s tribulations in the “trial of miles” — are spot-on, and the race at the end of the book lives up to its hype. Plus, the first half of the book has the great sense of hanging around in a locker room and swapping stories.
Outside of that, however, I’m afraid the book comes up a little flat-footed.