‘We were looking for nothing’

Cara Hoffman, Running

Simon & Schuster, 288pp, $26.00, ISBN 9781476757575 

reviewed by Jason DeYoung

Heads up, Cara Hoffman’s Running is not about that deeply middle-class pastime of putting on trainers and hoofing a 5k with other well-fed, health-minded locals. Running in Hoffman’s book is lying – it’s a hustle – done by a cast of wasters who work the inbound trains, selling unsuspected tourists on low-end hotels in the red-light district of Athens, Greece. In exchange, these kids get a little drinking money and a roof over their heads. It’s a close-to-the-bone existence that comes with some attendant freedoms – freedom to waste time fucking, drinking, suffering and reading books. (And, let me tell you, there’s a lot of glorious reading in this novel; Hoffman’s characters are stunningly well-read in poetry and classics.) An outstanding, fast-paced story, Running is about youth, friendship and ultimately the family you choose to create for yourself, making useful statements on materialism, terrorism and poverty along the way.

Set in the 1980s – perhaps the last time one could truly and easily live off the grid – Running tells the story of three outcast teenagers: Bridey, Milo and Jasper. The point of view vacillates between Bridey and Milo; as we are told in the first sentence, ‘Jasper died the week before.’ It is never entirely clear what killed Jasper, but that isn’t the core mystery of the novel. The three waifs get entangled with a scheme to steal and sell foreign passports, which leads to an international terrorist event. The outcome of that event and their reactions to it determine the rest of their lives.

Running is a lot about reaction. Bridey has ended up in Athens after fleeing a well-meaning but often absent uncle obsessed with preparing for an upcoming calamity; Jasper wanted to escape his upper-class youth, and Milo his lower-class one. While most of action in the novel takes place in Greece, its subplot reveals Milo years later. Now in his early forties, he seems to be living every academic poet’s fantasy – a free apartment in New York City, a good job at a prestigious college and two well-received books of poetry under his belt (one of them, by the way, is entitled Running – an ode to his youthful slumming and a message of a sorts to Bridey, whom Milo hasn’t seen since their fateful last summer in Greece). But Milo is lost and unhappy. He nurtures one student in particular, one who reminds him of Bridey in some respects, but mostly he drinks and sleeps with homeless men in the park. Hoffman writes: ‘[Milo] knew none of it was the kind of freedom he’d had with Jasper and Bridey, who never once called themselves a name or believed the things they did with their bodies could mean anything to anyone but them.’ Running refreshingly calls bullshit on the labeling of basic human actions as political.

When he went out to Ty's or Nowhere Bar the boys there were so meticulously put together. So aware of their self-documented beauty. You didn't see someone confidant enough in their own skin or with their own thoughts to dress like Jasper had; even the punks couldn't. Everyone so clean, afraid of dirt or the slightest discomfort. And the conversation was insipid. Everyone wanting to be seen as good – even if they worked for a bloody bank or drug company or built fucking bombs, they had to tell you how they at cruelty-free meat, did a fun run for charity.

This desire for a lifestyle of stark honesty galvanises the novel. In the opening pages, Bridey tells us that ‘People think they need things. Money or respect or clean sheets. But they don’t. You can wash your hair and brush your teeth with hand soap. You can sleep outside. You can eat whatever’s there.’ There are indeed many baths in the ocean in Running and depictions of living off ouzo and little else.

In an interview on her website, Cara Hoffman says: ‘I wrote [the characters] this way because it’s an accurate reflection of the world I come from.’ She continues: ‘It’s common to think that people who are poor, or uneducated, or living outside the law are not intelligent, or that they don’t love and understand literature or art […] This, in my opinion, is always a mistake. There are plenty of brilliant people who never went to school, or made money, or became successful; the world is made of them, in fact.’ Yes, they are smart and intelligent characters, but each of her ‘jackal jawed’ runners is also complex and wounded – compelled to do their utmost at times to completely screw themselves over.

It is clear that for Cara Hoffman the novel is a personal one. In the aforementioned interview, she reveals that she was a runner in her youth in 1980s Athens, ‘one of the most permeable sites [at the time] in Europe to enter with arms and drugs and […] a popular destination for people trying to disappear for political and legal reasons.’ It was in Athens, she says, where she became herself. This intense personal time is reflected in the gritty and vivid descriptions of Athens. Here’s a passage, spoken by Bridey:

We were looking for nothing and had found it in Athens. Demeter’s lips white as stone, Apollo’s yellow mantle sun washed, sanded, windblown to granite. The barren, blighted street outside out room in the low white ruin of the red-light district smelled like burning oil and sooty haze hung in the middle distance. The hotel had no sign, but everyone called it Olympos.

Strumming and plucking throughout the novel is a marvellous soundtrack of sorts of bouzouki music. Awash with such details and images, Running is an intensely evocative novel, with a sense of place that feels uncommon in contemporary fiction.

Although the mysteries in Running are resolved in its conclusion, Bridey and Milo’s relationship is wisely left inconclusive to a degree. If accuracy is Hoffman’s concern in her depiction of companionship, then she has done it, because the novel left me feeling wistful for all the friends and acquaintances I’ve made while traveling, particularly those connections made young. You promise to stay in touch, but you don’t. With Running I was there again – with those other young travellers but also with Hoffman’s narrator, wondering.