I have this great story, actually it's a joke...a really long, tenuous joke. But I tell it like a story, never calling it a joke, never letting on there'll be a punch line. I've ended up telling the (slightly off-color) story many times when taking students (all adults of course) on long field trips or late at night when returning with athletes (again, all adults) from a game or around a campfire. And at the end I've always found how the "monotony of the telling" impacts the punch line. Generally with rolling-in-the-aisles laughter. Funny as all get-out. But occasionally someone would innocently ask "what happened next?".
That is, in my strange way of thinking, how John L. Parker, Jr.'s book Again to Carthage initially struck me. Not that it's funny. On the contrary, there was very little humor in the book. I recognized it as serious stuff. But sometimes the detailed background information didn't seem important. Fooled was I.
Then after giving it more thought Parker's book became more like a Red Steagall (the Cowboy Poet/songwriter/performer) composition. Steagall always paints a vivid and detailed picture with words and ends with a swift twisting kick in the britches. I've spent many dusty days horseback, opting for big bulky headphones, eschewing the traditional Stetson, listening to the static-y AM radio stations when a Steagall song would well my eyes to muddy tears. After the final chorus I often wanted to scream "what happened next?".
One of my primary benchmarks for judging a good story is if it leaves me with a nagging "what happened next" feeling.
Parker has a knack, like Steagall, for weaving a large dose of non-fiction into a fictitious plot. I'm a sucker for that. And that's why I could never be taken seriously if I reviewed this book (well that and also I'm not a book reviewer). You see, as I sifted through the non-fictional parts of the book I realized there's only three degrees of separation between myself and John L. Parker, Jr. via a swift kick.
Damn you, objectivity!
So when I say this was one of the best books I've ever read, disregard my opinion. Just read the book.
I will, however, attempt to entice you by reviewing the plot without a spoiler to the "kick in the britches" ending.
Again to Carthage is Parker's sequel to his first work of fiction, Once a Runner. It picks up the story with Quenton Cassidy being a successful lawyer, yet yearning for one more chance in the spotlight since winning an Olympic silver medal ten years earlier. This time, however, his comeback will be as a marathoner attempting to make the Olympic team, not as a miler. The book follows him through a few life-changing event which help him make the decision to give up the fast-paced lawyer-ly lifestyle for that of the distance runner's solitude. Parker once again crafts a tale, this time using more sense stimulating words, with short chapters laying the groundwork for the climatic ending. Much like he did with Once a Runner.
And that's about all I can reveal without plagiarizing the book's cover flap, giving a spoiler, or bringing in my bias.
Speaking of bias, what are the three degrees of separation from myself to John L. Parker, Jr.?
First degree - years ago I spent several semesters as a teaching assistant for a musculo-skeletal assessment course. The opportunity afforded me the privilege to forge a friendship with the professor, Kyle Heffner, a member of the 1980 US Olympic Marathon team. In the trials, held in Buffalo, NY, Kyle established his place on the team by finishing third with a 2:10:55, behind Anthony Sandoval (2:10:19) and Benji Durden (2:10:41). If you'll recall, 1980 was the year President Jimmy Carter made the decision to boycott the summer Olympics in Moscow. Due to the boycott Kyle never realized his Olympic dream.
Third degree - John L. Parker's alter ego, Quenton Cassidy was trying to qualify for the Olympic marathon. Parker writes like he was actually there.
Second degree - sorry but I can't explain without spoiling. You'll have to read the book to connect the two. If you can take one from three you'll get two and immediately know the sudden impact the last few chapters had on me and why I let out a muffled "what happened next" whine.
I sincerely hope Parker has an answer.