To Escape Her Grief, and Work Through It, an Author Starts Running
By Katie Arnold
Memoir, as a form, seems often to annoy critics. The memoir is like your backhand, or a 1970s Fiat — there’s always something wrong with it. Every few years, in these very pages, someone writes a cranky omnibus review lambasting the genre. Memoirists, published and would-be, were still recovering from Neil Genzlinger’s 2011 shot across the bow — unambiguously headlined “The Problem With Memoirs” — when just a few weeks ago came Alexandra Fuller, breastplate shining, to tell us in no uncertain terms that most memoir material is best saved for the shrink’s couch. A really excellent memoir (in her view they’re exceedingly rare) ought to be a kind of primer on living. What Fuller wants from a memoir is wisdom. In order to balance its innate narcissism, a memoir ought to instruct.
But literature doesn’t prescribe, it describes. A good memoir says what happened, not how to live. To read (or write) a memoir as a kind of self-help book is fundamentally to misunderstand the project. It is the job of a literary memoirist simply to write down her experiences with as much art and truth as she can muster. In her debut memoir, “Running Home,” Katie Arnold does an admirable job of trusting the everyday material of her life. Arnold, an ultrarunner and contributing editor at Outside magazine, could easily have opted for a different approach, one that solely focuses on the extraordinary aspects of her life as an elite athlete and adventure writer. Instead she writes a story exploring how her growing preoccupation with running has been intertwined with loving and losing her father. She takes the risk of being ordinary, and therefore human.
The first half of the book toggles between two time periods: Arnold’s coming-of-age in the ’70s and a contemporary account of her father’s death. She writes throughout with the clear prose of an experienced magazine writer. The depiction of her father’s final months and days is affecting and vivid — she travels to her dad’s side in rural Virginia from her own home in Santa Fe, where she lives with her husband and two young daughters.
She makes us feel the displacement of leaving one’s adult life to become a child again, and these passages are beautifully detailed. She observes her dad as they clean out the barn, which has long served as his workshop and which he built himself: “He shuffles across the grass to the overflowing dumpster, rests his elbows on the edge, and peers in, surveying the mountain of stuff bound straight for the landfill: the ‘Tea for the Tillerman’ LP and the Mexican chicken and the decaying scuba kit.” These details give us a sense of the free spirit her father once was — more than she’d even realized. Arnold’s growing understanding of her father’s perfidy — especially the revelation of his many friendships with women not his wives — makes her grief complex and pungent.
The book shifts after her dad dies, leaving behind the toggling structure and following Arnold into her new, fatherless life. She feels understandably unmoored. She turns to running for solace. A few years earlier she had somehow completed a marathon, by accident, as she interviewed the runner Dean Karnazes. She also accidentally climbed Half Dome, in Yosemite National Park, again while reporting, as she recounts in an uncharacteristically aimless chapter that might be titled “This One Time? I Climbed Half Dome?” Arnold’s missteps seem to take a decidedly positive turn. Her accidental marathon, combined with the extremes of her grief, leads her to toy with the idea of running an ultramarathon.
She commits to a 50K race four months away, and she trains as she grieves that first year: “I vary my routes so I don’t get bored. I run up Atalaya and along sandy arroyos and only rarely on the road. I prefer slow, long runs to speed work, and hills over flats. No two weeks are ever the same. Grief has its own topography, jagged and unpredictable. In the beginning it was like dragging myself up a vertical face, the surface loose and slippery, trying not to slip backwards into darkness.”
We learn the emotional terrain, and the practical as well: what she eats for fuel, what she carries during her runs, how she structures her days, how she manages child care. This is the stuff of her life — the fact that it is all done in aid of her extraordinary achievement makes it more compelling, sure, but the homely details would be enough. My book editor once explained the appeal of memoir thus: “It’s cozy and voyeuristic.” In other words, we want to know how other people live, and Arnold shows us.
That’s part of the memoirist’s job, it’s true, but in order to defeat narcissism, a memoirist also has to reveal the more brutal realities of, well, there’s no nice way to say this, the heart. This is the real moral function of the memoir: to say the uncomfortable, even the unsavory truth of one’s inmost being, so the reader might recognize herself and feel less alone.
Arnold shares her anguish over losing her father, but she unfolds a more challenging narrative as well: her own story as a mother who runs away, just a little. A mother leaving behind her children, even for a short period of time, is a dangerous thing to write about — abandoning one’s children is, after all, the great female crime. “Running Home” is at its very best when Arnold writes about finding herself pulled away from her husband and young daughters by her running and her writing. Her mother guilt-trips her, and there’s something deeper too: She sees her father in her actions. She takes herself on a writing retreat to France and there comes face to face with her father’s ghost: “For the first time, lying in my narrow bed, I can see how Dad might have left. He didn’t leave for yellow walls in France or for wooden shutters that opened to a steeple and a pond shrouded in mist; he left for another woman, but that woman was an excuse. He left for silence and spaciousness, for freedom, and the idea of it, for staying in bed as late as he pleased. Having this now, I can see how easy it would be to want more.” Arnold’s life might seem privileged, but her frank self-searching keeps the reader solidly on her side.
The second half of the book follows her as she reckons with her father’s legacy, making her way through the intermountain West on her own two feet, pounding out her own salvation and becoming an elite ultramarathoner in the bargain. The book has a sweet and earned ending.
Unfortunately, Arnold can’t resist goosing it a bit. Throughout the last 50 pages, she hits us repeatedly with blasts of the abstract, inflated language of wisdom: “The magic was in not trying, in running strong from my heart and bones straight into the heart of the world.” That’s just one of many revelations that traffic-jam the end of the book, each loftier than the last, until the reader starts to feel she is a trail runner making an attack on a Colorado peak and reaching false summit after false summit. These life lessons feel extraneous and are impatient-making, because loftiness is not, after all, the job of the memoir. Arnold has already fulfilled that job. She has ushered us into an interesting life and laid bare the darker feelings hidden there. We don’t require transcendent wisdom. A writer does not need to be a phoenix.
Claire Dederer’s most recent memoir is “Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning.”
By Katie Arnold
Illustrated. 358 pp. Random House. $27.