More Like Not Running Away
Winner of the 2004 Mary McCarthy Prize in Fiction, this debut novel pulses with the electricity of an adolescent boy who loves his father as much as he has reasons to hate him. Its lyrical prose makes Paul Shepard one of the few fiction writers who can match the intensity of plot with language. More Like Not Running Away is simply luminous, a realistic and compassionate portrait of all we cannot hide.
More Like Not Running Away
I have heard things in my life. Whether I want to or not, they come to me, from walls and floors, from places I've been. Growing up, I heard that my Dad had done things to be locked away, but for a long time I didn't know what they were. Even now, when I'm going to say what I found out, the sound of my own blood makes it hard to put the words together.
The first time I heard someone preaching, when I was six, the words stuck in me like nails. It was the kind of story my dad would like, how the world would leave a man alone to die, laugh at him, spit on him, call him a liar. But not kill him, not really. And there on the cross the man says why hast thou forsaken me. That's when I knew, it was right there in the preacher's red eyes, that I was hearing things for a reason.
"The best part," I told my dad at lunch afterwards, "is how he even tried to help the guys next to him on the cross."
His jaw locked. "I know all about it." His voice came from every comer of the room, but he wasn't yelling. "You want to go there, your mother can take you. I don't like to see a church bus out front of my house," he said. "This isn't a trailer park."
My mom moved her plate to one side and pointed at nothing in particular on the table. "He rode the bus because his friend does. You can't tell the kid not to go to church, Everest." She was talking to the water in her glass. The part about my friend wasn't exactly true, the kid who invited me wasn't what you'd call a friend, but it didn't matter, not enough to say anything.
"I didn't tell him not to go," my dad said. "I don't keep a Firebird on cinder blocks out in the front yard, and I don't want a mission bus stopping here either. I saw all I wanted of those a long time ago."
I don't think he meant to knock over the glass of water—he was just swinging his hand while he talked—but then before we could even move to stop the water from spreading, he swept everything in front of him to the floor. My mom and my little sister Carson jumped from the noise, but I sat still. I already knew he was going to do it beforehand, and I was listening to how long it took the dishes to break, to how many different ways they broke.
He had gravel in his voice now. "You go wherever you want," he said, not looking at me, "and you get there however you want. All I'm asking is that the bus stay clear of my front door."
I took my napkin from my lap and went outside. We had just moved there, so I hadn't climbed all the trees yet, but I knew which one I was going to. At that time I had never fallen, no matter what I climbed. I'd been to the top of chain link backstops and swing ropes, and everywhere I went my feet never made a mistake. I went up into a sugar maple that still had a crown of colored leaves. The fear that was quick behind my knees and the cold edges of the air went away when I got to a comfortable place to stand. Our house was far away from anyone else's, and from up there the houses and roads and cars were no more than toys. My dad was right, I could see cars parked in people's front yards. There were other things that were wrong too, like the aluminum siding, the chain link fences, the crooked mobile homes. If I had wanted, I could have straightened up the yards, squared the roads, lined up the houses, just with my finger.
Instead, I leaned back against the trunk of the tree, raised my arms, and a knot that I didn't know was in me came loose. "It was mean," I said, shaking my words like the preacher had. "It was murder. But he gave his only son!" I knew every word, when to pause, even how to lower my eyes. When I got to the part about him hanging on the cross, I showed my palms. It was my voice, but I didn't have to think of any of the words, not even to try to remember them: the whole sermon came through me like I was a radio.
When my mom came out, her hands were red from the dishwater. I wanted to say the part about the nails again, but she started talking first. "Levi, you're going to fall out of that tree if you don't hold on." She didn't really mean it, she knew better. "What are you talking about anyway? Who are you talking to?"
I didn't even look down. "It was like splinters, only worse," I said. "They were nails. And they went all the way through." Through, through, through, I could hear the words landing inside her.
"Listen," she said, "what happened in the house, you know, he would never do anything to hurt you. He's never laid a hand on any of us."
"I'm going to build a church here. On this branch. Can you buy some boards?"
But she wasn't listening. She shook her head. "Do you hear what I'm saying, Levi? When you run out of the house like that, it just makes things worse."
I let my arms down. "He makes things worse," I said.
"Well," she said, "he's a good man, he loves you." She took her hair from her eyes. "You're what keeps him together. He can't stand to think that you'd go through any of the things he went through, that's all."
He was so poor when he was growing up that for a few years, they all lived on the back porch of a mill house. That's what she meant. My mom left then. She was as beautiful as a person could be, and she could make people laugh even when they didn't want to. I preached some more after she left. I stayed up in the tree so long that when I let my foot down, my leg felt dead. My arms, too, were empty of strength from preaching with them. I wondered, just for a moment, if I was stuck in the tree, but it was only a moment, then I was inching my way down, making every move just perfectly, like I was being held by invisible hands.
Winner of the 2004 Mary McCarthy Prize in Fiction, Selected by Larry Woiwode
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"As I read this extraordinarily powerful first novel, I had the sense of walking down a path in the company of a wild animal I had somehow been lulled into thinking was harmless and tame, with no premonition that it would soon enough consume me. Paul Shepherd is a master craftsman, and the subtlety of his art, the unassuming elegance of its architecture, rendered me spellbound and finally grateful. I don't think I shall ever forget this fine book, its honest, guileless voice leading me along into the fire."
"I don't know when I've felt more deeply for a cast of characters. In fact, it seems wrong to call them characters at all, because they are so fully formed, so true. I'm sure that I will carry them with me all my days. More Like Not Running Away has all the markings of a classic."
—Julianna Baggott, author of Girl Talk, The Miss America Family, and The Madam
You have in your hands a haunting novel....The story unfolds in the oral, ventriloqual tradition (as in Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird), a recounting the narrator has rehearsed so many times on his tongue it has the feel of a legend....This book brims with the poetry of the working class, seldom sung lyrics of working men and women....
—From the Introduction by Larry Woiwode"A riveting exploration of what it is to be an outsider even in your own head. Shepherd has written a gripping story of childhood angst—psychologically thrilling, lyrically exact."