To Escape Her Grief, and Work Through It, an Author Starts Running
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.