The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Alan Sillitoe. New York: Open Road Media, 2016 (originally published in 1959).
Summary: A collection of nine short stories set in the pre-and post-World War II British working class, characterized by a strong sense of anger, alienation, and desolation.
There was a season in my life where I was into running–anywhere from 5K races to half marathons. This book kept coming up but I never had a chance to read it. It’s probably just as well, because even the title story had far less to do with running than loneliness. It is a book that could have been the inspiration for the Beatles “Eleanor Rigby.” All the lonely people.
The title story is about an adolescent boy from working class origins caught up in petty crime and sentenced to “borstal,” a kind of reform school. He is permitted to train outside the fences for a long distance competition, and much of the story is his private thoughts on those runs, culminating in the struggle between being awarded a light work load if he wins versus not wanting to comply with the borstal administration.
Other stories describe:
- An upholsterer “Uncle Ernest” abandoned by his wife, exploited by some young girls for food and money in a cafe, yet who become the one bright spot in his life until the police warn him against ever seeing them again, leading him to turn to drink.
- A religious education teacher who combats the tedium of dealing with unruly boys through fantasizing about the shop girls across the street from his classroom winter, until faced down by one particularly defiant boy.
- A postman abandoned by his wife after six years of marriage, taking up with a housepainter. Later she begins to visit again, often in need of money, saying the housepainter had died, musing about “The Fishing Boat Picture” until he gives it to her, then finds it in a pawn shop and buys it back. Neither the picture nor the former wife fare well.
- “Noah’s Ark” is a carnival ride that culminates a day of cadging money by two poor boys whose big thrill is getting on the ride without paying, chased by the ride operator.
- A man who tries (and fails) to hang himself, persuading a young neighbor boy to help him in “On Saturday Afternoon.”
- “The Match” is not just about a losing soccer match but how two men return to their wives, one engaging in domestic violence, while his friend overhears the fight in the bliss of being newly-wed.
- In “The Disgrace of Jim Scarfedale” a young neighbor narrates the sad story of mama’s boy Jim, who to prove he is not, marries and divorces in haste, returns to mama, while secretly pursuing a disgraceful life across town.
- “The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller” is an actual account of Sillitoe’s youth, where he was led in street gang activities by Frankie, a warrior who loved to do battle with a rival gang. Separated by war, their lives take very different courses, Frankie’s downward, Alan’s upward, as he discovers in an encounter years later.
These are not uplifting or “feel good” stories, as you can well see. What they do describe are young men who feel trapped in a banal existence, lashing out in anger, whether through criminal activity, violence against others, or turning that anger inward in self-destructive behavior. It is not unlike the accounts of the rust belt working class in J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. Like that book, these stories narrate the reservoir of free floating anger as well as hopelessness or even deep loneliness of people who feel there is no way out of their situation. Sadly, stories like these could be written from characters in most of our cities. “All the lonely people/Where do they all come from?”