I’ll admit it, I bought and read Alan Sillitoe’s short story collection The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner purely on the basis of the Vintage edition’s attractive cover. As a long-distance runner myself, the bold prominence of the activity’s name paired with the background image of the runner inspired me to read Sillitoe’s stories of working class British life between the World Wars right away.
The highlight of this collection is most certainly the eponymous lead off story, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner”. In this story, Smith, an adolescent in the grain of Holden Caulfield, finds himself reflecting on his life and world-view while running for his reform school cross-country team. Coming from a working class family that was forced to do without in war times, Smith had little choice to become anything other than the petty criminal that he indeed became. However, instead of “reforming” himself by way of the discipline required of a successful cross-country runner, Smith instead seizes the opportunity to buck the system that brought him to the reform school in the first place.
Throughout the collection, Sillitoe’s protagonists often find themselves in the position to either accept or reject the fates that society has prescribed for them. In “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner” Smith defiantly rejects the “reformed” path that the school governor has reserved for him. On the opposite side is Ernest in “Uncle Ernest”, a shell-shocked war veteran who finally finds a purpose in caring for two poor, young neighborhood girls. When the authorities accuse him of malfeasance, Ernest, instead of rebelling against their ignorance, decides rather to nurse his defeat at the nearest pub.
Reading The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner with no preexisting knowledge of the author I was pleasantly surprised to discover a perspective I have never heard from before. Though some of the slang and dialect was tough to get through, I was keenly interested to read about the poor, young habitants of Nottingham as they negotiated their lives on the eve of World War II. While this book is indeed a collection of stories, the overall theme wraps up very nicely with the final story, “The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller”. In the final pages the writer protagonist Alan says a final goodbye to Frankie, his adolescence and the time period as a whole.
Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner was an interesting read. I have a very good feeling that I will refer back to Smith and the first story on many a future training run.