Cara Hoffman
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Buy *Running* by Cara Hoffmanonline

Cara Hoffman
Simon and Schuster
288 pages
February 2017
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Teaching poetry classes in Manhattan, Milo Rollock has been ravaged not so much by his past as by age, emasculation, and disappointment. Drawn back by his memories in the wake of his midlife crisis, Milo fanatically searches the Internet for his teenage friend Bridey Sullivan. It’s been 25 years since he last connected with Bridey, whom he views as an “an American survivor,” in a landscape where coincidence is disguised as fate and Milo’s penchant for solitude is tinged with a streak of pathos.

The shocking tranquility of Milo’s life has left him mostly numb. At first the appointment at this new school seemed like a sign, another unlikely place Bridey might know where to find him. Milo recalls the glory days he spent with his lover, Jasper, and with Bridey right before Jasper died, before he and Bridey became nothing more “than tourists in their own youth.” As Milo tries to piece together what has happened between then and now, he ponders his most famous poem, "Running"--how it was inspired by his life working on the streets of Athens, years before he attended university, years before this time and place in his life.

Hoffman’s story of friendship and memory is often driven by extortion, pretty thievery, and revenge. The author shuffles time-frames, shifting between Milo’s lonely existence walking the streets of the East Village and his recollections of meeting Jasper in a boxing ring in 1988 in Manchester. Filled with the passion and folly of youth, the boys elope to the Continent, where the desire to make money leads them to become runners. In Athens, they join a group of ragged, mismatched teenagers shepherding tourists to rundown hotels. In this arid sundrenched place, hungry boys jostle onto crowded trains, talking to people about the Plaka and Mount Olympus. Later Milo and Jasper (and Bridey) take up residence at the “four dollars a night” Olympus hotel on Diligianni Street, just cross from the Larissa Train Station.

The trio survive week to week, reading and drinking and celebrating their daily takings at the local bar. Athens “is like a beacon” drawing the young. From Bridey’s cold mountain town in Washington State where she lived with her uncle to Jasper and Milo’s journey from the rain-soaked council housing estates of Manchester, these kids have “found something” in Athens, a city of barren, blighted streets and a low white red-light district where the dilapidated Olympos hotel sits “graying and sooty” from its proximity to the highway.

Hoffman lends vibrant voice to her characters as she transforms them from downtrodden victims into empowered, heroic characters. Bridey is the true heart of the drama. The author of her own first-person narrative, her wiry physicality is balanced against a blend of fragility, resilience, and a defensively tough facade. The crux of Bridey’s journey is she, Jasper, and Milo getting caught up in selling passports. Jasper is destined to become collateral damage in the scam; the arrival of Declan--a violent provocateurwith an agenda of his own--thrusts the three into the orbit of a terrorist conspiracy. Declan’s ferocious outbursts accentuate the heat-drenched feeling of desolation that “the Islands” are the place where you go after it’s all over.

Playing with memory--the characters’ and our own--allows Hoffman to conjure some of the novel’s loveliest, most melancholy images: Jasper laying drunk and unconscious, his pale skin shining in the gray light; Milo on the floor of their crummy rooftop hotel room with the Acropolis lit up in the evening haze; Declan’s anguished shadow looming Nosferatu-like above Jasper. Layered atop the novel’s stifling atmosphere are the darkness and clouds and traffic in the heat of the day, the smell of diesel and baked bread ever-present around the plazas, crowded ruins, and temples once built by slaves. In this mythical landscape, Hoffman’s heroes are “at last made visible.”

Running is a novel of light and shadow, hardscrabble poverty, justice and vengeance that highlights the transient nature of a traveler’s life as he waits for the train that always seems to keep on coming. Full of dark twists and turns, the tale’s setting is as powerful as Hoffman’s central protagonists, allowing Bridey, Milo, and Jasper to be hijacked by their desires, hopes, and dreams, seduced by the blinding Athenian sun.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2017

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