Let me begin by saying that writing a novel is a terrific achievement. I know, having written one ~ and only one. My hat is off to anyone who can complete a novel.
That said, here is my honest opinion of RUN, a sports-oriented coming-of-age drama by Allen Levine.
Characters: High school senior Andy Rasson narrates the character-driven tale of his final year on the Westborough High School Cross Country team, and the emotional trials and ethical decisions he must face with his two best friends and fellow runners Chris Allred and Drake “Skids” Henry, and girlfriend and women’s CC runner Tiffany Hampton.
Allen does a terrific job of bringing his characters to life through description, dialogue and action recounted by protagonist Andy. Here, Andy introduces reader to Skids.
Skids is like my younger brother and best friend rolled into one. He’s pretty serious, like me, but he’s more action-oriented. As I said, he’s fearless and won’t take much shit from anyone. You’d have to be fearless to come out in seventh grade. Early on, he realized what was going on in his pants and made the declaration because he couldn’t stand the wrong assumptions the other kids were making. You see, Skids isn’t, and wasn’t, stereotypically gay. He’s pretty much just like any other guy. And that might be what saved him, mostly, from being more seriously picked on throughout his scholastic career (at least so far).
Skids’ one gay characteristic (other than the fact that he is into dick) is that he’s a bit of a clean freak. One day during our middle school’s track season, Drake Henry announced in the locker room (of all places!?!) that gay guys had cleaner butts than straight guys. He said that you could tell because gay guys never had skid marks on their underwear. That set off howls of laughter from some of the guys, while others looked a bit uncomfortable. Danny Minten (a dumbass if there ever was one) had pointed at Drake and for no reason yelled “Skidmarks!” In no time, all of the guys on the team began pointing and laughing and yelling as well. Over the next few months, the nickname was shortened to Skids. It was so commonly used that I and his other good friends even started to use it. Drake hated the name at first, but finally came to realize it wasn’t going away. And it was at least tolerable with the second half of the nickname dropped.
Skids is a monster runner, if not a natural one. While not being much of a morning person, he gets his miles in…
Allen is not afraid to take his time with character description, bolstering it here with an anecdote. RUN is liberally laced with such character-enriching anecdotes. Taken together they create a solid back story for the cast.
Narrator Andy is completely honest and forthcoming about everything. He sometimes verges on too much information. This is a characteristic completely in line with Andy’s hyper-conscientious, performance-driven, detail-obsessed character, giving the story a compelling credibility.
Plot: When “bad boy” runner Chad transfers in and joins the team, his behavior helps create ethical dilemmas for Andy and his friends, complicating and imperiling what should have been a fun, triumphant final cross-country season.
Setting: The story takes place in the fictional upper-class neighborhood of Westborough, and on the cross-country courses of various schools. Allen offers the minimum description needed to keep readers oriented in the story, but the external setting is nothing remarkable. The story’s true setting is Andy’s internal landscape, never more fascinating than during the book’s many running sequences:
We come out of the bend and hit a longer lower grade hill. It is my time to surge. But I’m not really surging. I’m full of adrenaline, endorphins, lactic acid, and a mountain of pain, and I think I’m reaching this odd zen-like place where I am speed. I am speed. I don’t need to see the damage I’m doing to Chad. I love this hill. I try to hear Chad’s footsteps , but I’m tunnel-visioning and tunnel-hearing. I have a clarity of purpose and focus. I hug the left line on the last turn…
What I thought could be done better: Not much. RUN hits on all cylinders. The only thing I would’ve liked to see Allen add is a bit more physical description of the characters. The action, dialogue and the narrative description of character traits is excellent. But what do these characters actually look like? Here’s our introduction to main character Chris:
He shrugs and smiles back. Without sounding too gay, Chris Allred has a handsome, honest face that people trust. If they only knew. . . He’s pretty serious about school and running, but otherwise he’s a key component of the psycho elements on our team. He makes it fun and, at the same time, exasperating.
Is Chris tall? Does he have curly blonde hair? Blue eyes with a mocking glint? If you follow my reviews regularly, you know lack of character description is a pet peeve of mine, though not one every author agrees with. Some feel character description is unnecessary. But I see nothing to lose and lots to gain by sharing a specific vision of a character’s appearance, just the same as sharing specifics of action, dialogue and character trait. “…handsome, honest face that people trust…” is something, but doesn’t really show me the character Allen envisioned.
What I thought was good: Lack of physical description aside, the narrative descriptions of character are outstanding, imho. Here we get a peek at Andy’s obsessive nature during a training run:
I feel my posse around me eating up turf. I look at my watch and start counting the number of times my right foot lands in fifteen seconds. Twenty-four is the answer. I multiply it by four and then double it to account for each footfall (although I don’t really need to) in order to know our stride rate is a cool 192. Right where it needs to be. I start to count how many times my right foot lands in twenty seconds, but then shake it off. In a training run, I have to fight the urge to constantly check the rate — fifteen, twenty, thirty second intervals, and then start over. Other times, if I’m running on a sidewalk, I’ll count off the number of steps it takes between the slabs of concrete — 1, 2, 1, 3, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 3 and on and on for miles. I know it’s messed up, but sometimes I’ll do that for a whole run if I don’t have a distraction.
The muscular descriptions of the runs are almost breathtaking. If you run, you’ll get it. If you don’t run, you’ll come as close to experiencing a run as words can bring you:
When we finally catch him, Skids is leading us along the river path past the university fields. The sun is really beating us up, as is the early surge game we just played. Still, though, we three run together almost in unison. All seems to be forgiven as we feel our muscles tighten and stretch, and our minds become lulled by the run’s hypnotic rhythm. There is really nothing I would rather be doing. I don’t think that last thought as much as I experience and seem to be that. I am the run. The run is me. This run, this act, cannot exist unless I am here to create it and see it from its beginning to its conclusion and WHOA!!!
A scary as shit dog runs out after us as we near Westborough High School’s fields where we sometimes try to knock out the last half mile on the track…
Foreshadowing? Perhaps. Here, Andy grapples with problems forced on him by new teammate Chad:
I make a mental pro and con list, but start with the cons because they are easier. He is a cheat. He does drugs. He’s a shitty influence on the team. He encourages others around him to get drunk or high. He creates divisions within the team. He has a bad attitude. He doesn’t fit in. He talks kinda like a thug sometimes. Skids thinks he’s hot. . . I don’t know why that last thought makes me shudder. I’m also not exactly sure why I put it in the con column. I’ll have to think about that. The negatives are a pretty good list. I’ll try to come up with more than one pro. . . He is a good runner. Yeah, that’s the given one, right there. Um. . . Hmm. . . Thinking. . . He seriously challenges Chris, Skids, and me in practice when he’s not hung over . That is a good one. He’s obviously got some serious issues, and CC probably does him a lot of good. OK, I’m sort of getting a handle on this. It is also probably good for us (Chris and me, and maybe even the team) to be exposed to people who are not like us. It is an opportunity to grow and cope. And, OK, Skids thinks he’s hot.
I feel a little bit better about Chad after the pro list. Except there are things that keep gnawing at me. I know drug use is prohibited in state high school athletics. Um, yeah, and they’re also fucking illegal. Chris, Skids, and I are honor and duty-bound to report the use. But get real. We’re not snitches. As bad as I feel knowing what I know, I also know that I would feel worse if I turned him in. And the drugs and drinking sure don’t seem to enhance Chad’s performance. So really, he’s just hurting himself…
Andy’s encounters with the shades of gray that are life bring a real ring of truth to RUN.
Overall: RUN rings true on every level. From the profane, juvenile banter of high school kids, to the descriptions of pushing through on hard runs and in competition, Allen’s prose is dead-on. There’s a bittersweetness in seeing these (mostly) likeable youngsters faced with adult issues, but watching how they cope makes for fascinating reading.
Great job Allen!
Honest Indie Book Reviews will take a brief sabbatical following this review, while I focus on completing ROGUE GODDESSES, sequel to AMERICAN GODDESSES. I expect to be back on the indie review trail by Spring 2015, if not before.