The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner – Alan Sillitoe, Copyright 1959.
Publisher: Vintage International
Source: Personal Collection – Purchased New
I have to be upfront about this. I am not much of a fan of short story collections. My beef with them stems from the fact that as soon as I invest myself in the wellbeing of the characters, the story ends. It would be fine if I knew that each and every story was a teaser for a novel that I could go searching for if I found the characters really wonderful. This is sometimes the case, but not often enough for my liking. In this instance, I never actually intended to pick up a collection of short stories, but me being me, I wasn’t careful enough when I was perusing the internet in an attempt to ascertain which of Alan Sillitoe’s works was most widely accepted to be his best. I kept seeing The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner come up, so I went online and snatched up a copy without reading more carefully.
The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner is a collection of nine stories, all of which are set in central England (Nottingham kept coming up a lot) in the late nineteen-thirties. Some of them are set before the start of the war, others just after it began. There is one story about a nearly homeless upholsterer with a streak of generosity that gets him into trouble, another about a school teacher with a wandering eye, and yet another about a mentally challenged man who wants nothing more than to do his part for King and Country. The stories are all so different, but are drawn together by the spirit, or lack thereof, of the times. Poverty is the most notable recurring element in all of the stories and Sillitoe does a wonderful job of illustrating the vacant abyss from which people were somehow able to draw happiness during one of the most difficult and depressing periods in history. It is heartbreaking to think of the depressing circumstances people lived through and equally as heartbreaking to discover the meagre and trifling actions that could bring joy to their lives.
My favourite story was On Saturday Afternoon in which a young boy witnesses a man trying to commit suicide and finds it to be the most fun he’s ever had. The story is an excellent commentary on depression and the idiocy of suicide.
“Then he stood on it to fasten the rope to the light-fitting. The table creaked and didn’t look very safe, but it did him for what he wanted.
‘It wain’t hold up, mate,’ I said to him, thinking how much better it was to be here than sitting in the pictures and seeing the Jungle Jim serial.”
My least favourite story was the title story. At over fifty pages, it is by far the longest of the set. I found the stream of consciousness style in which the story was told failed to do justice to Sillitoe’s character. The story looks at the rigidity of contemporary morals and the true nature of honesty. A young man has been thrown in borstal and explains in his monologue what’s wrong with society and what he views as the backward system that has led him to his current circumstances.
This collection is best summed up by a quote from the blurb on the book. “Alan Sillitoe’s lean prose, unforgettable protagonists, and real-life wisdom captured the voice of a generation.” I could not have said it better myself. Though I still regret having picked up a short-story collection instead of a novel, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner has given me an opportunity to see how enrapturing Sillitoe’s characters can be. It has furthered my curiosity in the author enough to seek out more of his works, though perhaps this time around I will be a little more careful to choose a novel.