By Jonathan Gault
August 10, 2015
The appeal of Once a Runner, the 1978 cult classic by John L. Parker, Jr., is that it is, first and foremost, a running book. It’s Quenton Cassidy‘s story, but it’s also a story about anyone whoever laced up a pair of spikes and dedicated themselves to the single-minded pursuit of a goal.
Parker’s 2008 follow-up, Again to Carthage, changed it up. While anyone who read Once a Runner would certainly be familiar with Cassidy’s wit and willingness to fight for what he believes, for the first time we get to see Cassidy the person entirely separate from his running pursuits (that is, until he takes the sport up again halfway through the novel).
Now, in Racing the Rain, Parker’s Once a Runner prequel that serves as the final installment in the Cassidy series, Parker affords an even deeper dive into his famous protagonist. Racing the Rain features running and racing, but it is not specifically a running book. Coming-of-age novel? Yes. Sports story? Most definitely. But while the running elements linger underneath the surface like the tropical fish Cassidy dives for, Cassidy’s journey is far more complex than a simple buildup to the Big Race.
And it works. The running portions always held my attention, but so too did the rest of the story, from Cassidy’s travails on the basketball team to his friendship with the outdoorsman Trapper Nelson, “the Tarzan of the Loxahatchee,” easily the most compelling character in the series save Cassidy himself. Because of our knowledge of who Cassidy ultimately becomes, it’s essential that Parker include some running, but many of the characteristics we’ve come to associate with Cassidy — his rebelliousness and determination — shine most clearly in the basketball scenes.
Indeed, it’s odd to think of Cassidy as anything other than a runner, but it’s also fitting. The journey Cassidy undergoes in Racing the Rain isn’t about his development as a runner, but rather his development into a runner.
The novel opens by introducing a second-grade Cassidy and concludes with the miler moving into his familiar room in Southeastern University’s Doobey Hall. In between, Parker’s sharp prose richly describes what it was like to grow up a middle-class baby boomer on Florida’s Gold Coast. His greatest skill as an author is his ability to write eloquently no matter the subject, whether it’s breaking the press in basketball or trapping angelfish on the ocean floor. Parker is particularly effective in making Cassidy’s childhood relatable to the reader; his tongue-in-cheek description of how to avoid eating vegetables at dinner is both amusing and 100 percent accurate.
As the story advances, we get intermittent updates on Cassidy’s running career — his first quarter-mile race, breaking the middle school record in the half mile in a race mirroring the climactic showdown with John Walton in Once a Runner — but the focus is on Cassidy’s development off the track. Nelson, a larger-than-life character (based on a real person) whose friends range from 1936 Olympian Archie San Romani to Babe Ruth, plays a central role in shaping the Cassidy readers know and love. He serves as the young Cassidy’s mentor on a variety of subjects and is the first to encourage his running career. But perhaps most importantly, Nelson’s spartan existence — he lives in a cabin on the Loxahatchee River along with the small army of animals he’s trapped — plants the seeds for the same independence that allows Cassidy to leave the world behind in training for his race against Walton in Once a Runner.
In terms of pure running scenes, Racing the Rain can’t match Once a Runner — nothing can — but it doesn’t need to. Anyone invested enough in the character of Cassidy to consider reading Racing the Rain will like what they see, yet the work is strong enough on its own that it has the potential to draw a new audience into Once a Runner, an audience that may be more willing to put up with the running geekery now that they know where Cassidy comes from.
Racing the Rain was released on July 14 and can be ordered through Amazon by clicking this link. Support LetsRun.com by using that link.
Discuss Racing The Rain on our world famous messageboard: MB: Once a Runner prequel – Racing the Rain.
If you’ve never read any of the three books, you could follow Quenton Cassidy’s story in chronological order by reading Racing the Rain first, then Once a Runner and finally Again to Carthage. Or you could read them in order of release: Once a Runner, Again to Carthage, then Racing the Rain. Either one would work. However, we don’t think readers would enjoy Again to Carthage without having read Once a Runner.
Other book reviews by LetsRun.com can be found here.