Thursday, December 17, 2009

Book Review - Marathon by Hal Higdon

I got this book at the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon when Hal was signing books across the aisle from me doing the same.  Getting to him prior to the expo opening, I wanted to share a few words with him without having a line of other runners behind me, as I did not want to take up his time.  I told him how many of my friends were excited to have purchased his book and that I knew many others who had used his training guides to get off the couch.  After I exchange, I was a little disappointed, given the lack of any rush of other people at the time, when I opened my book later to see he had inscribed, verbatim: "To Dane- Hal Higdon" (at least I think that is what his signature said).  At least he spelled my name right.  Nevertheless, I was looking forward to reading the book and even though had other books in the cue, set to it immediately.

Having finished it and reflected on it for about a week or so, I have to say that my general feeling of the novel, with no disrespect to Hal (who has written like 35 books) was "meh."  Let me discuss the pros and the cons to explain my general feeling of averageness towards "Marathon: A Novel".


First and foremost, when you read a novel, you expect that the author will put some of his own life experiences into it. Getting a book by Higdon, a 2:21:55 marathoner who has competed at very high levels for a variety of distances, you more or less would be disappointed if his experiences did not shape the book.  However, those experiences should not be so glaringly obvious.  Calling the editor of your fictional running magazine "Burton Ambrose" when any runner worth their salt knows that the Runner's World editor is Ambrose Burfoot is just a little too cute.  And it happens throughout the novel.  It got to be where I would predict whom the next celebrity runner would be based on the paragraph that would begin to identify them.  Then again, I have become quite a student of the Marathon recently so perhaps I knew a little more than the average runner.

Second, the writing is fine but not good.  Conversations are stilted and would never happen in real life.  Sure the book needs to give information not available to the reader outside of this fictional world but often the repertoire between those in the book seems forced and unimaginative.  References to Facebook and Twitter are going to REALLY date this book in about 3 years when both of those social networking sites will probably be replaced by something else. (Remember Friendster, anyone?  Anyone?  Bueller?)  And when one character's name was given as Yolanda and sass was almost given as her middle name, I knew it would not be long before "You go, girl!" would appear on the pages.

Third, there is something to be said about getting into the thoughts and minds of the reader and something else to be said about leaving certain descriptions unsaid.  And while I always expect there to be some romance in a novel, the constant and somewhat creepy descriptions of intimacy almost made this a romance novel.  I most assuredly did not need to know what shape the pubic hair of one of the female characters was shaved and I know that being aware she was on her period advanced the novel in no way.  The semi-lurid descriptions of the females, almost always focusing on their tight stomachs, or lacy under garments or sexual appetites, made me want to know exactly why Higdon was telling me all of these things. 

As for the surprise ending, if you know anything about the 1994 Los Angeles Marathon and Paul Pilkington, the finale of the men's race was completely foreseeable.

And the parts of the event that were totally fictional were rather unbelievable.  The race director is best friends with both the Pope AND the biggest supermodel in the world?  I am willing to suspend my disbelief some but not all the way.

That said, what just never sat with me very well was the continual use of nicknames that it appears Higdon found quite inventive and therefore used them liberally.  Celebrity X, Le Femme Fiona, Mystery Girl, etc. Every time you read them you were reminded that this was indeed fictional (and one more: Barack Obama Expressway?  Come on, Hal!)  You could never get lost in the story and believe this might really be happening.  Same with the continual countdown clock throughout the book which served as chapter markers.  Whenever a point needed to be made that time was ticking down, a little clock would appear:  71:59:59, 71:59:58, 71:59:77.  Very distracting and far too overused.

Without a doubt many of the minutia of marathoning was captured very well.  The planning, the worrying and all that could possible go right and wrong in a big city Marathon were displayed in the retelling of the fictional Lake City marathon (blatantly the Chicago Marathon in the thinnest of veils).  So much was gotten right in this book but it still fell short on many levels.

Then again, it would be a good primer for those wishing to learn more about a who's who in the running world, with only the names changed slightly to protect the innocent!


Mike said...

Any chance you could post a quick review without spoilers? The moment I saw "Spoilers" I stopped reading... Or does "meh" sum it up well enough?

Texas Transplant said...

Has anyone ever spelled your name wrong? I mean, if that's the best you have to say about it that ain't saying much!

Dane said...


Not sure if you will see this but "meh" sums it up. I didn't give away the ending of the book or anything in the review. This wasn't "The Sixth Sense".

I have been called every variation of "Dave, Dan, Dale Dean" you can imagine, TT. as for "Rauschenberg", well, it isn't hard but believe me the surname is often butchered.