Tales of a Townie

Ron McLarty’s recent novels draw on his hometown of East Providence
January 17, 2007 2:06:56 PM

IN TRAVELER, McLarty’s Jono Riley reacquaints himself with his boyhood friends and enemies.
The two novels by Ron McLarty that have been published so far take place at least partly in East Providence, where the author grew up. The first one, the two-year-old The Memory of Running, is getting even more local attention than Traveler, released this month, because it has been chosen for the annual Reading Across Rhode Island program, which from now into May is getting people all over the state to read and discuss the book.

That was a fortunate choice, because it’s the better book, sustaining the metaphor of the title and succeeding with a more difficult character. Smithy Ide at first glance is a protagonist that’s hard to like: 279 pounds of beer-guzzling, self-castigating, 43-year-old failure. The kind of guy who rationalizes smoking as a way to keep the mosquitoes away. One morning he wakes up outside in the rain, having ridden his boyhood Raleigh bicycle drunk to where he used to go fishing, hours from home. Like Forrest Gump, who kept on running, Smithy keeps on peddling — clear across the country, through experiences both life-threatening and illuminating, as pounds melt away and understandings accrue.

As a boy, he was a runner, skinny, thriving with that very sense of freedom and possibilities. Then, as now, he obsessed about his beautiful sister Bethany, who is smart but schizophrenic. Her “Voice” would periodically tell her to hurt herself and run away for long periods from her concerned parents and brother. He’s now heading to claim her body from a California morgue.

Memory is a compelling read because of the people Smithy encounters and the adventures he survives — a cop shoots him, thinking he’s a child molester; a dying AIDS patient sideswipes him with his truck, which ends up being a positive experience for Smithy, except for the accident setting off another cop who beats him up. Readers put off by such recurring heavy-handedness might also be wary of Norma, a wheelchair-bound next-door neighbor he keeps updating by phone. That romance isn’t as cloying as it might be, because McLarty keeps her feisty and independent, her childhood crush on Smithy providing him with self-confidence more than sentimental payoff.

McLarty’s recent novel, Traveler, employs a similar back-and-forth structure of flashback and present time. In it, Jono Riley, 51, comes back to the East Providence of his youth, reacquainting himself with both his boyhood friends and enemies. The occasion is the funeral of a woman he hadn’t seen since she was 18 and engaged, this time the childhood crush being his own. The story takes a while to settle down, hauling us through some implausible jokey patches — he is a character actor, like the author, and supposedly performed once with his head wrapped in black gauze because his character had been decapitated. Eventually, the book becomes a murder mystery as we follow him around to colorful local sights (on a water tower, red block letters read: GO TOWNIES — KILL LA SALLE). Some funny set pieces and running gags follow, such as a soap opera role everybody recalls, where he had to play a hospital orderly as mute so that the producers wouldn’t have to pay for another speaking role.

The Memory of Running | by Ron McLarty | Penguin Paperback | 358 pages | $14
Traveler | By Ron McLarty | Viking | 280 pages | $25

McLarty will be the keynote speaker on Saturday, January 20 at the Reading Across Rhode Island Literary Conference at Bryant University in Smithfield from 9 am to 2:30 pm. Registration is $25. For further information about the conference and continuing free events, go to McLarty will discuss Traveler on Wednesday, January 24 at 7 pm at City Hall, 145 Taunton Avenue, East Providence. Call 401.434.2453.


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