Dusted Off: Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner
Nine teacups. Hold the tempests. Serve bitter, cold
Film noir is the anti-hero Disney World. Here, Place is the greatest character of all. The cigarette-sucking mug of Robert Mitchum and the smolder of Veronica Lake succeed best when acted (or reacted?) against the soliloquies of cracked sidewalks and dark shadows.
Book noir, to my taste, gives us even more. One of the genre’s best examples, Alan Sillitoe’s 1959 collection, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, is comprised of nine stories set in bleak Nottingham among prisons and factories. Here, everyday characters cling desperately to personal codes heavy as millstones.
Place always matters. The bogs of English birth and class and even geography suck at the shoes of Sillitoe’s unheroes at every step—even for those who run like the wind.
The title story tells of a lad, Smith, who runs a cross-country course near his prison. He’s a “Borstal boy” for robbing a bakery, but when the authorities discover he has the lungs of an opera star, they turn him loose each morning to train for an upcoming long-distance contest. He’ll represent the prison, win the race and bring glory to his keepers.
Is it freedom? Rehabilitation? In Nottingham, or suffocating places like it, Sillitoe suggests, that’s hardly the point. The war against a man’s Place matters most. Smith resents every Place he’s ever known: Culture. Law. Geography. Most of all, Authority: “Christ, I’d rather be like I am—always on the run and breaking into shops for a packet of fags and a jar of jam—than have the whip-hand over somebody else and be dead from the toenails up.”
Smith will never be any man’s lapdog, even if the food bowl is filled with promises of better treatment in his last months of incarceration—or, later, a college cross-country scholarship. The soul of a rebel, here achingly rendered, is our revelation.
Other tales, funny, droll and gritty, fan out from this one on their wounded courses. Sillitoe prefers voice-driven works, with Place pervasive as English rain. His observations drill like gimlets, offering in anecdote and language the same bitter slices of lower-class-society life James Joyce served up in Dubliners.
One of England’s “angry young men” of the 1950s—a band best known for Kingsley Amis—Sillitoe has outlasted the pack, publishing nearly 50 works in a long career. It needn’t have turned out this way: He grew up gravely poor, was imprisoned briefly for debt, found himself out of school and hard at work at 14 in a bicycle factory.
Small wonder, then, he gave us this rebel Disney World. Or maybe, even better named, this Noir-nia.