Racing the Rain delivers the goods on young Quenton Cassidy with Parker’s flair for inspirational running scenes, an intriguing cast of characters, and a verdant setting above and below the surface of the Florida Gold Coast.
John L. Parker returns in Racing the Rain to flesh out the character of Cassidy, beginning with the young boy that would toe the line barefoot to run his first race, not against people, or even himself, but just to feel the wind and the joy of the act of running. Quenton Cassidy, the famed hero of Once a Runner, received the gifts of speed and the courage of a miler from the gods, but until those talents were nurtured by coaches and mentors, they lay quiescent.
Parker opens the novel with scenes from an American childhood that will seem alien to most of his young readers, but that resonates with authenticity for the age; and, of course, there’s a race.
The boys in the story—Cassidy, his friends Stiggs and Randleman—roamed freely as the story unfolds, the early years touched on at the highlights, until Racing the Rain settles into the early teenage years when Cassidy turns serious about sports even as he searches for his identity.
For Cassidy, identity gets bound by the character of the Florida Gold Coast and by Trapper Nelson. Trapper, who as Cassidy thought of it, “. . . was supposedly bigger and stronger than Paul Bunyan, had more powers than Superman, knew more about animals than Tarzan . . .” is the first to suggest that Cassidy pursue running, and was wise enough to wait for the seed to germinate. Trapper lives alone in the Everglades and the two form a relationship built on a mutual appreciation of each other and the Glades.
Parker’s ability to write a race scene that leaves your pulse pounding was the backbone of Once a Runner. In Racing the Rain, he adds a graceful skill in describing the natural world of Cassidy, whether describing a foray to capture bait fish amongst the cattails in the tide pools, scuba-diving in coral “so exotic they seemed not the product of the natural world, but of some schizophrenic jeweler,” or the feel of the oppressive summer heat as he works for Trapper maintaining an exotic menagerie. Parker’s affinity for Florida helps him paint the scenes with details that allow the richness of the place and time shine through.
As an author, Parker also added some misdirection to his repertoire as he gently builds a training program for young runners under the guise of telling the story. Gone are the sixty quarter miles, replaced by the guiding wisdom of Archie San Romani through Trapper, and later, from his coaches, especially Mr. Kamrad. The running is interspersed with basketball. It’s on the court that Cassidy first stars, learning the lessons of diligent practice and focus to reach beyond the barriers that had been applied to him.
Parker does a smooth job of bringing the previous book’s characters back to round out the scenes. Readers of Once a Runner will recognize many of the characters, not the least Mizner and a young Jack Nubbins and the race finale takes place at Southeastern University, the setting for Once a Runner.
Parker continues to blend in the science of training with his racing, but does so subtly. He sets basketball as the prestige sport, with cross country and track distant also-rans in the school hierarchy of popularity, not so different from the reality for most runners. As the plot develops, so does Cassidy’s character. The reader watches the writer deftly molding young Cassidy into the man that he will be in Once a Runner, the athlete with an almost visceral rejection of stupidity masquerading as authority. The tension builds through the second third of the novel as Cassidy is forced, by a combination of his own talents and decisions as well as the internal pressures of the sports programs with the prestige to decide on his future.
The result is less a one dimensional running book like Once a Runner and more a coming of age story for Quenton Cassidy, teenager. As such, it should have wider appeal to more readers. And yet, there’s that Parker touch, and the runners will recognize the magic that Parker brings to running fiction, that makes it special to all of us that once dreamed of being that runner.
Paul Duffau writes novels about running and works with junior high cross country runners part-time. His first novel, Finishing Kick, was recognized by Running Times in their Summer Reading list July, 2014. His newest novel, a high-octane adventure set in the mountains of Montana, is Trail of Second Chances. He blogs on the running life, running book, and interviews people that he finds interesting at www.paulduffau.com .