By Cara Hoffman
Simon & Schuster
276 pages, $26
By Stephanie Shapiro
She writes like an angel and creates corners of hell for her characters to inhabit. The result in "Running" is that Cara Hoffman has mastered her craft and produced a full-fledged work of art.
As the teen-age drifter Bridey says of herself and her two companions -- perhaps even soul mates -- in the summer of 1989, "We were looking for nothing and found it in Athens."
"We" are Bridey; hungry, ragged Jasper, a drop-out from Eton; and African-English Milo, a poet and boxer. They share a squalid, sweaty hotel room and its single mattress in exchange for "running." The author tells us a "runner's" job is to lie about where he lives, then convince people to come home with him. We can take her at her word. Besides winning prestigious literary prizes and teaching in a soup kitchen and in a private school with $40,000 annual tuition, Hoffman's resume also includes work at a hotel in Athens.
Hoffman works wonders with words. She somehow makes them add up to more than their apparent sum: they set off echoes, or perhaps psychological ripples. When morning comes to the bleak retreat, it turns the sky "the color of an old bruise." Jasper has the kind of elegant, placid face "you see in old portraits" and a fragility out of place in the rough-and-tumble Greek underworld. He and Milo become a couple, and all three sleep on the same mattress, suggesting puppies collapsing after play, "a tangle of limbs."
As runners, they ride the Greek tourist trains, snaring disoriented or naive travelers for the tacky hotel Olympos in Athens' sordid red-light district. By the time the weary and unwary tourists realize they are being had, it is too dark, too late or both to find a better resting place the same night. Only after the tourists check in, pay their bills and hand over their passports do the runners receive their room key.
The room Bridey, Jasper and Milo share is on the fifth floor, with crumbling walls, windows missing panes, and all their possessions, mostly books, in a ring on the floor around the mattress. The three come and go, for running, of course, and for various excursions around Athens and the surrounding countryside, separately and together.
Their lives are a monotonous round of "running" the trains for enough cash for dinner and a drink, with violence breaking out from nowhere for no particular reason. A fight at the railroad station develops into a riot with uninvolved but assaulted bystanders bleeding everywhere. Their heads make a popping sound as they hit the wall or floor. Someone calls the police, who never arrive. Bridey stays under a bench until the fight has moved outdoors--those prose echoes or ripples come to mind, since Hoffman makes no explanation of why she reacts that way.
The three companions deteriorate into anomie, the collapse of rules and structure of a personality or a society or a civilization. They decide to steal passports from the hotel safe and sell them for ready cash to shady denizens of the lobby. Murat, an acquaintance of the three, is arrested when someone with his stolen passport is arrested after a fatal terrorist airport explosion.
This section of the story is especially perplexing. Either Hoffman intends readers to fumble with which character is performing which outrage or she has let the plot get out of hand. Declan, a fellow drifter and a veteran of Irish Republican Army actions, chops off chunks of Bridey's hair with a knife. He has no particular reason, just as he has snapped and fractured Jasper's wrist in a split second when Jasper wise-cracked about Declan's war experiences.
Hoffman's flashbacks blend seamlessly into the rest of the action. Bridey has lost her parents when she was 11 years old, never knowing how or if they died. She has lived for a few years with her survivalist uncle in the Oregon woods. Thus she can live off the land later wherever she finds herself, even in suburbs near Athens. She carries a cigarette lighter, ammonium nitrate and electrical tape in her purse. (Ammonium nitrate recalls the Oklahoma City bombing.)
In Oregon, she had blown up a pond, killing all the fish and wildlife in it and the vicinity. Later, when she blows up part of the hotel Olympos, we are not shocked but rather disappointed that someone so bright and sensitive would offhandedly detonate explosives without even thinking about the result. She lies to the clerk, saying the destroyed wall just crumbled.
She has set off the explosion to distract the clerk, certainly fulfilling that intention, while Milo and Jasper raid the hotel office for the passports they plan to sell. No one calls the police this time. These incidents of feeble civil authority let Hoffman show the anomie of Greek society of the time without having to explain history or social conditions.
Stealing the passports, then selling them to known criminals and suspected terrorists, framing Murat for the deaths--all these steps are evil beyond anything the three companions ever intend. They try to make sense of their own actions but mostly spend their brainpower on leaving Athens before the police catch on to their subterfuges.
Jasper's suspicious death soon afterward leaves him out of the present-day lives of Milo and Bridey, who have no contact with each other ever again, after an idyllic few months house-sitting a nearby villa.
Over the years, Milo has won literary prizes and landed a cushy faculty job at the New School for Social Research in New York City. But he has not developed personally. He sleeps in the park, as if forgetting that a student and her boyfriend are taking over his apartment.
We catch only an enigmatic glimpse of Bridey after the terrorist blast, soon after the three flee Athens--just enough to make us wary of her future. We jump to a conclusion, but the wrong one. Well, partly wrong. At least one reader has yelled, "Oh, no," after the last glimpse of Bridey. Perhaps the author has further plans for her.
One small oddity in the editing, otherwise impeccable: Amish quilts usually contain a deliberate mistake in the stitching, guarding against the sin of pride. In "Runners" Hoffman describes stunted vegetation in a landscape as "scrub brush." Perhaps no one noticed; perhaps she is avoiding the sin of pride. .
Stephanie Shapiro is a former News writer and editor.