Tom McNab, script consultant and technical adviser for Chariots of Fire, a Scotsman who was his country's triple-jump record holder for six years (1958-64) and has coached both Winter (bob-sledding) and Summer (track and field) Olympic teams for Great Britain, has now written his first novel, and it's hardly surprising that the book concerns one of his specialties, running. Flanagan's Run (William Morrow & Company, Inc., $14.50) is a roman √† clef based on the so-called Bunion Derby that titillated and distracted many Americans in 1929.
The coast-to-coast footrace was conceived and promoted by a flamboyant picaro named C.C. (Cash and Carry) Pyle. Pyle was no amateur in athletics. Among other successes, and failures, he had launched pro tennis in 1926 when he persuaded the reigning women's star, Suzanne Lenglen, to sign with him for the outlandish sum of $50,000 and be the main attraction on a nascent tour. He also gave the moribund sport of pro football a huge boost when he signed collegiate hero Red Grange to a contract and sent him on an exhibition tour (with the Chicago Bears) during which he drew large crowds that paid satisfying amounts of cash. McNab's C.C. Pyle is C.C. Flanagan, somewhat more of a rogue than the original, but easily as inventive and endearing—two adjectives that also apply to the book.
McNab fills his cast of characters much as Priestley did in his The Good Companions, drawing them from all walks (or runs) of life and giving them wildly disparate ages and temperaments, and he sets them off cross-country from Los Angeles to New York on the same kind of journey—a rollicking, noisy series of misadventures in which his heroes and heroines (yes, there are women in the race) invariably and cheerfully triumph.
There are no villains among the principals in Flanagan's Run. In fact, there are few wicked thoughts or unworthy deeds. This would undoubtedly reduce the narrative to bland mush were it not for the overriding presence, day after day, of the monumental task Flanagan's runners face for three months—the endless miles in debilitating heat, freezing cold, wind, rain, snow and floods. After the first day, the quota of about 50 miles per day is split into morning and afternoon stages of 20-odd miles apiece, with a three-hour rest period in between. There are occasional rest days, but these frequently turn out to be far more eventful than the running days as Flanagan fulfills his plan to keep his competitors busy—raising money for incidental prizes, providing stories for the press accompanying the runners and keeping himself in good bootleg whiskey: He makes side bets on such stunts involving the runners as a man-against-horse race, a male vs. female tug-of-war, and sideshow boxing matches. "Everywhere we go," he says, "every minute of the way, we aim to put on a show." And he does.
Nevertheless, this is a book about running: 2,000 men and women running more than 3,000 miles for $360,000 in prize money. Along the way, McNab offers some fine prose in describing the racing. He also fills the running segments with interesting and valuable lore on how competitors can keep reasonably fit for such a long grind. One of them, an aging marathoner named Doc Cole, expresses the runners' philosophy thusly: "The way I see it, every single mile we put in, every foot of ground we cover, that's a victory. Every time we think of stopping and keep going, that's another victory. Every goddam moment on that road is, too. Out here we grow every day. We grow, don't you see?"
Flanagan's Run is already a bestseller in Britain and deserves its success, but it's going to have its difficulties here. McNab has striven mightily to master ordinary American conversation and slang, but sooner or later most of his characters begin to sound as if they had recently sprung from the streets of Glasgow. "You mayn't look much," says one male competitor to a female runner, "but this ain't no beauty competition." And a reader in Aberdeen, never having been here, could be forgiven for believing that America is dotted with enclaves of homesick Scots, so frequently do Flanagan's people run into them. No, lads, oatcakes, black pudding and haggis aren't on the menu at McDonald's, and if you want a wee drap or a dram at the bar, you'd better ask for a shot.