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John L. Parker, Jr. has written an extraordinarily dangerous novel: Once a Runner, the story of a year in the life of a young world-class miler. It's dangerous in that the temptation, after reading it, is to go out and run too fast, too hard, and too long — likely to the point of injury or burn-out. Caveat Lector! But there's good writing along the way in Once a Runner — powerful imagery as well as apt metaphors, sophomoric humor, arch understatement, and pulse-pounding race action. An early sample, from Chapter 3 ("The Morning Run"):

The weight men were cocky, masculine and gentle; they never needed to bully, such was their looming physical presence. These specimens made their particular way in the world by heaving 16-pound iron balls great distances, tossing fiberglass plates out of vision, whipping sharpened aluminum shafts to the horizon. They were the most direct throwbacks to ancient times when such arts were cultivated to bash and puncture the armor of one's enemies; to spill blood from a distance. The confidence of those who do such things well is enormous and needs no bravado for support. They feared only each other.

The distance runners were serene messengers. Gliding along wooded trails and mountain paths, their spiritual ancestors kept their own solitary counsel for long hours while carrying some message the import of which was only one corner of their considerable speculation. They lived within themselves; long ago they did so, and they do today.

There was great unspoken respect between the weight men and the distance runners that was understood but never examined closely. They all dealt in one way or another with the absolute limits of the human body and spirit, but the runners and weight men seemed to somehow share a special understanding.

The sprinters and jumpers were quite another story. ...

And some representative striking snippets:

Chapter 10 ("Demons")

... The back of her neck smelled like a parakeet's tummy, sweet hay and fluff. ...

Chapter 17 ("Breaking Down")

... He did not live on nuts and berries; if the furnace was hot enough, anything would burn, even Big Macs. ...

Chapter 19 ("The Awesome Midnight Raid")

... These fundamental imbalances led them into concentric circles of ever decreasing size: a nautilus shell of their discontent. ...

Chapter 33 ("Orchids")

... What was the secret, they wanted to know; in a thousand different ways they wanted to know The Secret. And not one of them was prepared, truly prepared to believe that it had not so much to do with chemicals and zippy mental tricks as with that most unprofound and sometimes heart-rendering process of removing, molecule by molecule, the very tough rubber that comprised the bottoms of his training shoes. The Trial of Miles; Miles of Trials. ...

Once a Runner is not a refined book; there's plenty of grossness and impolite language. It's a fine book, though, in a multitude of meanings of "fine": superior, keen, pure, fit, ...

(cf. ISBN:0915297019, AndThenTheVultureEatsYou (9 Dec 2004), ...)

TopicLiterature - TopicRunning - Datetag20060917

(correlates: NoGodButGod, AndThenTheVultureEatsYou, IllusionOfControl, ...)