Although she’s a relatively new fiction writer, New York-based novelist Cara Hoffman has already become revered for her craft. Having written for several respected publications — like The New York Times, The Paris Review, Fifth Estate, and Salon — as well as won numerous awards for her first two works (2011’s So Much Pretty and 2014’s Be Safe I Love You), she’s clearly a master at blending creative and journalistic inclinations into a thoughtful and profound style.
In particular, Hoffman’s latest effort, Running, finds her conjuring firsthand knowledge within these two approaches, resulting in a highly touching, eloquent, and disquieting tale about “love, friendship, and survival set in the red light district of Athens in the 1980s.” She displays equal skill as a reporter and storyteller throughout the book, exploring poignant conflicts and relationships that most readers will never know yet can connect with instantly.
Rather than refer to conventional athleticism and sport, Hoffman’s title refers to something she did during her teenage years in Greece. As she explains in an interview on her website, “a runner is someone who … work[s] trains by selling unsuspecting tourists on low-end hotels, and in exchange they get a cut of the deal and a free place to sleep.” She recalls scouting various trips “looking to hustle people who didn’t know their way around or hadn’t yet figured out where they’d be staying.” Years later, she uses these experiences to inform the characters and plot of her novel, which are described as follows:
It’s 1988, and Bridey Sullivan, a young American, has fled a peculiar and traumatic upbringing in Washington State for Athens, Greece. There, she takes up with a queer British couple, the poet Milo Rollock and Eton dropout Jasper Lethe, and together they get by as “runners” … As the trio rides trains, slip in and out of homelessness, and drink away their meager earnings in seedy corner bars, they form a unique kind of family. But when they befriend an IRA fugitive, they become inextricably linked to an act of terrorism that will mark each of them for life and force them apart.
One of the most appealing aspects of Running is how it switches between first person and third person from chapter to chapter. Specifically, Bridey narrates about as often as Hoffman offers omniscient accounts of the trio. While this is a bit jarring at first, it soon becomes comfortable and appealing, as readers are given two distinct perspectives through which to bear witness. Bridey’s reflections allow for a tender rebelliousness than wouldn’t be possible if not through her eyes (“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”). In contrast, Hoffman can speak with a more objective and authoritative wisdom (“It was Jasper he saw with his eyes closed. It was Bridey he saw everywhere else… It was impossible for Milo not to think of her… She moved lightly, weight nothing, had a delicate Celtic face, wide mouth, and pointed, slightly crooked eyeteeth. He’d many occasions to look at her”).
On that note, the novel is much more of a character study than a dense plot with a multitude of twists and turns; in fact, it carries the sort of graceful, understated, and faithful sense of romanticism that makes Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy so beautiful and honest, as well as the traumatic destiny of an early Alejandro González Iñárritu film. Each of the three leads are wonderfully realized people whose affection for each other amidst a perpetual struggle between survivalist pragmatism and carefree East European artsy passion makes every page gripping. Even if nothing is going on action-wise, the conversations and thoughts they have keep you invested; you feel happy when they feel secure and loved, just as you feel heartbroken when you see the tragedy the befalls both their individual selves and their collective being.
Take the following moment, for example, when Bridey watches Milo and Jasper sleep in their rundown hotel room. Not only does it reveal just how intimate their bond is, but it also shows how Hoffman’s prose flows like a river of detailed lyrical splendor. Although there’s a lot of physical and emotional drama throughout Running, she never portrays it overly saccharine or self-indulgent, choosing instead to reveal actions and feelings with striking poise:
Jasper lay unconscious beside [Milo]. Tender looking, his pale skin shone in the gray light like a body floating just below the surface of water. I remember being very awake that night and sitting on the cold tile with my back pressed against the wall, smoking his cigarettes and trying to read one of his books by the light of the burning ash. They turned in their sleep, held one another. Jasper breathed heavily and I held the cigarette close to his face so I could see him better in the red glow. Smelled his hair, put my cheek against his… I would curl beside him, my back to his chest, his hands along my skin, and we’d doze, the three of us, a tangle of limbs.
Outside of creative writing merit, Hoffman has a deeper reason for writing the book: to challenge the “common” notion 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, or history or politics.” She elaborates: “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.” It was her mission, then, to construct characters who “are thriving and wickedly intelligent, but who might be disregarded by general society all the same.” She delivers exceptionally on that front (especially during the second half of the novel), as the trio openly and happily rejects a world that rejected them first in favor of a shared path.
Running is a disconcerting, moving, and ultimately treasurable novel whose rich, lived-in world and remarkably complex and empathetic protagonists remain alluring from start to finish. You really feel like you’re experiencing every emotion and turn of event with them, as if they’re longtime friends with whom you celebrate life on the surface to avoid confronting your unachievable redemption and unavoidable separation. Hoffman does a masterful job of exploring how fragile relationships and plans can be, how difficult it is to balance conformity and uniqueness, and how easily one mistake can alter the course of several lives. Don’t let it get away from you.