From the critically acclaimed author of Be Safe I Love You comes a haunting novel of love, friendship, and survival set in the red light district of Athens in the 1980s that New York magazine calls “a gauzy portrait of youthful longing, sticky romance, and regret.”
Running follows the lives of three friends and lovers: queer English poet Milo Rollack, prep school dropout Jasper Lethe, and seventeen-year-old Bridey Sullivan, an American with a fascination for fire. Barely out of childhood, squatting in a crumbling hotel on the outskirts of Athens in the late 1980s, the three slip in and out of homelessness, heavy drinking, and underground jobs. While working as runners for the hotel—convincing tourists to stay there for a commission and free board—they are befriended by an IRA fugitive and become inextricably linked to an act of terrorism that will mark each of them for life.
Bridey, the consummate survivor, abandons Jasper and Milo, planning to return when the dust has settled. But no one has fared well in her absence. And then a mysterious death drives her to seek an impossible absolution that will take her from the streets of the red-light district to the remote island cliff houses of the southern Mediterranean.
Twenty-five years later, Milo, now a successful writer and professor in Manhattan, struggles to live ethically in a world he knows is corrupt, coping with a secret that makes him a stranger to those closest to him.
“Beautiful and atmospheric…original and deeply sad” (Kirkus Reviews), Running is a sweeping and fearless story of friendship and survival from Cara Hoffman, an author who “writes like a dream—a disturbing, emotionally charged dream” (The Wall Street Journal).
Jasper died a week before I returned to Athens, so I never saw him again. They carried him out and down and he died in England, or maybe on the plane. There were witnesses in the lobby. There was a story in the newspaper. There was, the drunk boy said without raising his eyes to meet mine, proof.
Out on the street, a hot breeze moved the suffocating air around and kicked up grit from the gutter. I stood for a time by the door of the bar waiting to feel something, then walked in the direction of Monastiraki.
When I met Jasper in the spring of 1988, I still had fifty dollars, which was fifty dollars more than I had now. He wore a faded black T-shirt and dark pin-striped cutoffs that looked like they’d once been the trousers of a school uniform. His lank, oily blond hair was shaved in the back, hung in his face, and he was sweating.
“I need to make some money right away,” I told him.
Jasper nodded, lit a cigarette.
“There’s quite a lot of ways to do that here,” he said, his voice smooth and kind, his pale green eyes trained on my remaining possessions.
We recognized one another. I wasn’t a tourist. He’d get nothing for bringing me back to the hotel.
We stood in the aisle, away from the seated passengers, with our arms hanging out the window, the bright hot sun burning down and a breeze born from the speed of the train blowing in upon our faces. Outside, terraced slopes of silver-leaved olive trees dotted the rocky yellow landscape, and piles of plastic bottles lay strewn by the edge of the track. He told me about a punk show he’d seen in London where a guy set his cock on fire using aerosol hairspray, and about a journal Alexander Pushkin kept that had been published after being banned for one hundred years.
“I’ve been rewriting the want ads in dactylic hexameter,” he said.
“Because it’s funny. Because it makes them more beautiful,” he said. “Obviously.” Jasper described the city planning of Athens and the ruin that was London and the prospects of getting work in the olive groves of Artimeda. I wasn’t used to people talking so much.
“Where you from?” he asked.
“The States,” I said.
“Originally,” he said. “I mean where are you from originally?”
“The United States.”
He shrugged as if I hadn’t understood the question. “Athens is okay,” Jasper said. “But you can’t sleep out and you can’t sleep in the underground. The idea is to get to the islands. You know, make enough money in the city or picking fruit somewhere. Or,” he said, “by better, quicker means.”
His breath had the sweet medicinal bite of licorice and a cool flammable underlay. His eyes were a calm marbled green; skin so tender it looked like he might not yet shave; dimples beside a pair of fine, full lips. Jasper’s was the kind of elegant placid face you saw in old portraits. His posture straight, his shoulders wide. It was only after half an hour of standing beside him that I noticed his left arm was in a cast.
As we got closer to Athens, ragged, hungry-looking boys holding leaflets jostled onto the train, crowding the aisles, leaning on the arms of seats, talking to people about the islands or the Plaka or Mount Olympus. Saying they’d bring you to a nice place to stay; they’d take you to the ruins, to the port, to the bluest waters waiting just one more town away.
“None of it,” Jasper said, his eyes gone flat and dark as we approached the station, “is true.”
* * *
Back then I also had a small bag. Carried my last pack of Camels and a lighter, my passport, newly exchanged blue drachma notes with statues of gods printed on them. I had a pair of cutoffs, a T-shirt, a pencil, some soap. I had a wool sweater, ammonium nitrate, electrical tape. I was flush with riches even after a year of sleeping out in train stations, church doorways, and parks. I had good boot laces. I had fire.
Now I was sufficiently pared down to the essentials. The sweater was unnecessary; the extra T-shirt had become a towel.
I’d come back to Athens after three months away picking olives, wandering the streets in Istanbul, and living in a border village that was a tight, rocky knot of land claimed alternately by Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. I’d come back against every rational instinct for self-preservation I’d ever known.
We had lived together, Jasper and Milo, and me at a four-dollar-a-night hotel on Diligianni Street across from Larissis train station and a sick sliver of scrub grass littered with condoms and empty bottles that people called a park. Sometimes when Declan was between jobs he would stay there too.
The city was like a beacon. And it drew us from wherever we’d been left. For me, the outskirts of a smoke jumpers’ base in a cold mountain town, for Jasper and Milo the London suburbs and rain-soaked council housing of Manchester. We were looking for nothing and had found it in Athens: Demeter’s lips white as stone, Apollo’s yellow mantle sun washed, sanded, windblown to granite. The barren, blighted street outside our room in the low white ruin of the red-light district smelled like burning oil and a sooty haze hung in the middle distance. The hotel had no sign, but everyone called it Olympos.
I first arrived in Greece by boat the year before, and didn’t have money for meals. I had been hungry on that trip from Brindisi in a way I’d never experienced before. The heat, the vast, wind-filled open ocean, dark water shining like mercury beneath the sun; bright blue sky and wind, salt and sweat drying against your skin. I’d had a deck-class ticket and drifted along near the dining room’s outdoor tables waiting for people to leave before they finished their meals. Then I’d slip in quickly for their leftovers. People think they need things. Money or respect or clean sheets. But they don’t. You can wash your hair and brush your teeth with hand soap. You can sleep outside. You can eat whatever’s there.
Once you’re in a warm place, you can live for years and years and years on one five-dollar bill to the next. Five dollars is a reasonable amount of money to come across in the course of a day.
Jasper and Milo knew this before I did; good at surviving week to week, sipping sweetly from bottles of ouzo and Metaxa, reeling arm in arm before the Parthenon or the big television at Drinks Time. They were runners. We were all runners.
I tried to imagine it now, to feel their presence again amid the concrete and noise, to hear Jasper’s footsteps on the slick granite sidewalk. There was no money left to buy a train ticket or a deck-class. I’d been robbed in Tarlabasi and the last of the money we had made together was gone. I could stay or hitchhike but I was weighted down, tied, tired.
The dementing arid heat of day was high and powerful and I could feel the sweat crawling across my scalp. Compact cars sped by on the dirty thoroughfare. I turned up Karolou Street and walked on the shadowed side along a block of empty buildings and shuttered cafés to get some reprieve from the sun’s glare and the roar of the highway.
I stopped at a kiosk to ask for a cup of water and when the man inside handed it to me his fingers grazed mine for a second and I had to look away.
This reading group guide for Running includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Cara Hoffman. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Bridey Sullivan, a young woman on her own in Europe after having been raised by her uncle, is the centerpiece of this story. In the underbelly of 1980s Athens, Bridey and her friends Milo and Jasper scrounge for work in order to survive. When their plot to make money blows up with unintended, far-reaching consequences, the three find themselves in over their heads. Years later, Milo—who has become a famous poet and professor—struggles with the legacy of their time together.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. What is the significance of calling the unnamed hotel where Bridey, Milo, and Jasper work “Olympos?”
2. In speaking of the ruins in Greece, Jasper says, “It’s the damage they love, really; they say it’s the history, but it’s the damage. No one would care in the least if these things were new—covered with gaudy, bright primary colors like it was back then.” What do you think of his opinion? Do people have an appreciation for the ancient mainly because its remains are desolate and ruined?
3. When Bridey returns to visit their room years later, she remembers the vision of her friends as they slept: “the back of a knee, the curve of a hand, a fist closed around a wrist or an ankle, close around flesh that fit perfectly in the cradle between fingers and palm.” There’s a element of physicality in her memories; is memory sometimes carried in the body in a way it isn’t to the eye or ear? How would you describe the interplay between the three main characters, physically?
4. Bridey speaks of “that new landscape that can only appear fully to you when you’re alone.” If you’ve traveled (even locally), what did you find was different when you were alone, as opposed to when you were with a group or even one other person? What is the benefit of spending time alone? What is the drawback?
5. Both Bridey and her uncle Dare seem drawn to the power of fire. What is the appeal to working with such an unknowable element?
6. Navas’s brother, Milo, and Shaunjaye all box. Compare the sanctioned violence of something like boxing or wrestling with the unsanctioned fights between runners or between Declan and his enemies. Why do you think a current of violence runs throughout the novel?
7. When Milo begins working in New York, he laments the shift that has occurred in social interaction since the advent of cell phones. Do you think technology has made life less mysterious? Less personal?
8. What do you think Dare was trying to teach young Bridey when he threw her bomb into the pond? How does that lesson resonate with her?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Take turns reading aloud from an ancient Greek poems such as The Iliad or The Odyssey. How does Running fit into the space where those epics once stood? Have you read any literature from ancient Greece before?
2. The epigraph of Running is a quote from David Wojnarowicz’s book Close to the Knives. Look up the art of David Wojnarowicz, or read his memoir. Are there parallels between his writing and Hoffman’s? Are there parallels in their ideas or lives as writers?
3. Hoffman writes about Greek culture in Running, particularly the food, the music and dance. Look up traditional Greek dance on the Internet to hear the music Bridey heard in the train station; see the kinds of dances Bridey saw on the islands; try traditional Greek recipes such as spanokopita and moussaka; try drinks like ouzo, mastica, and Metaxa.
A Conversation with Cara Hoffman
Running is about three loners who band together to make their own family. What drew you to Bridey, Jasper, and Milo—all outsiders who left one world in search of another?
Bridey, Jasper and Milo are outsiders not only because they are the kind of people who are pushed away, but because they each left a world they believed was wrong. They recognize themselves in one another: bookish and quick and hungry for adventure and knowledge. People who would sleep on the street or in train stations for years if it meant they could go to the Acropolis, or Delphi, or keep travelling. And they love and respect each other in a world that’s unkind to people like them.
Bridey is a woman, Milo is black, Jasper is gay, two of them are poor, all of them are queer in one way or another; all of them are young. As part of an underclass, they reject a society that harms and denigrates others. As Milo says, “I don’t need a fascist to acknowledge my humanity.” But I didn’t write these characters simply to make a point, I wrote them this way because it’s an accurate reflection of the world I come from and the people I know. I think many people understand the idea of “chosen family.” To me, these are the deepest bonds because they’re based on intellect and affinity instead of blood.
Bridey, Jasper and Milo dropped out of school, but they continue to study, read voraciously, and write with no one to guide them. Why was it important to you to highlight their intellect despite their lack of schooling?
Their lives on the street as runners and traffickers in no way diminish their lives as intellectuals. It’s common to think that people who are poor, or uneducated, or living outside the law are not intelligent, or that they don’t love and understand literature or art, or history or politics. It’s also common to think that intelligent people in situations like the ones in Running are the exception. This, in my opinion, is always a mistake. There are plenty of brilliant people who never went to school, or made money, or became successful; the world is made of them, in fact.
In Running, it was important to me to show characters who are thriving and wickedly intelligent, but who might be disregarded by general society all the same, because that has been my experience. Access to education does not equal intelligence. And, in my opinion, lack of life experience can hinder intellectual development and empathy.
The characters in Running unintentionally become involved in an act of terrorism, making a decision that leads to the murder of several people and then letting someone else take the blame. As the story unfolds, we see that each of them deals with the aftermath differently. What are you hoping to convey by showing their different ways of coping and living with this brutal act?
This topic is something that I think is particularly important to talk about right now. How do people learn to live with the things they’ve done to others? Bridey, Jasper, and Milo are teenagers when they play a key role in a violent event, and their immediate and long-term reactions vary drastically. When the novel opens, it is more than twenty years after the fact: Milo is now an adult and teaching at a prestigious university in Manhattan. He’s successful, respected, and accomplished, but his understanding of who he is and how the world works is entirely built around that that quick, callous, violent act and his part in it. Bridey knowingly involves herself in other acts of violence to rectify the first. I wrote her reaction as more physical than intellectual. Taking responsibility for suffering; living with the complexity of that consciousness, not excusing it; rejecting the myth of natural outcomes, and of hierarchies—that’s Bridey’s journey in Running.
Running is set in 1989 Athens, the same time you were there. What attracted you to that time and place?
In the late ’80s, Athens was one of the most permeable sites in Europe to enter with arms and drugs, and a popular destination for people trying to disappear for political or legal reasons. It had a large expatriate community of which I was a part. Athens is also a beautiful city and to me it always felt familiar, even though I grew up in rural America, and Athens was vastly different from anywhere I’d lived; bustling and dirty and whitewashed and sprawling. Winding and intimate, and surrounding an ancient ruin. I loved the music there and the dance and the smell of the place and the liquor and the underlying sense of desolation and survival. Athens was the city where I became myself. I had never felt so at home anywhere, or so powerfully alone.
In a starred review of the novel, Booklist says, “Hoffman is fearless and trusting of her readers, and her precise prose captures the novel’s many settings—Greece, Washington State, New York City—and her characters’ feelings and actions, vividly.” Your ability to so beautifully paint Athens and describe life as a runner stems from your time there over twenty-five years ago, living there and working as a runner yourself. How did you end up in Athens?
I had been travelling around Europe for about a year and was low on money. (I’d left the states with my savings from working in a restaurant and a bookstore, and I hadn’t been able to find under-the-table work in northern Europe.) I had been living in Venice, sleeping in the train station beside the Grand Canal and stowing on water taxis to get around and see the city. I met a trans woman from Florida who told me she’d just come from travelling in the Greek islands. She said it was easy to find work there, and was a good place to go if you were sleeping outside and wanted to live cheaply. So I took a train from Venice to Athens. I arrived with thirty dollars, one change of clothes, a notebook and a couple of paperbacks.
How did you become a runner?
On that train to Athens, just outside the city, I got into a long conversation with an English boy who turned out to be a runner. He was looking for tourists to bring back to his hotel. He was also nineteen, like me, and had left home to live in the world. Before Athens, he’d been sleeping outside in a parking garage in Zagreb. I told him I was broke and looking for a job. He took me to the hotel he was working for, and the next day I started running trains.
How was it?
The hotel was dilapidated. The rooms were spare. People could pay a few drachmas to sleep on the roof. The top floor was condemned and crumbling—that’s where the runners lived. The buildings on either side of the hotel were brothels, the kind that actually had a single red bulb hanging in the entryway and a woman sitting beneath it in a folding metal chair.
Nearly every hotel in the red-light district and the areas surrounding Omonia Square used runners. We came from many different countries. Most of us were young, many of us in our teens, but some were older people who had fallen on hard times or were trying not to be found.
We spent our time hustling tourists back to the hotel, reading and drinking, listening to Greek music and walking around ruins. I watched a lot of fights, worked and drank and spent time with people from radically different backgrounds. We were paid a commission for every tourist we brought back to the hotel. It was difficult to get people to stay in a place like that, so there was a lot of lying going on. On the trains we were to pass out the hotel’s leaflet, which was full of pictures of some nice hotel that was absolutely not where we lived. There was no view of the Acropolis, no free continental breakfast; the place didn’t even have a sign outside.
Because of everything from cheap airfare to Airbnb to Facebook, the Athens you describe—a place where people can truly live off the grid—no longer exists. Are there still runners?
I am sure there are still outliers with wanderlust, or intellectual pilgrims who do things like sleep in a church doorway so they can be near a Caravaggio painting they love. And I think there are still runners in remote places. The world never changes as fast for people with little money.
Before the Internet, it was common to make your travel arrangements based on word of mouth. And this was especially true among expats who had been travelling for multiple years and working under the table. Then, you knew someone who knew someone else who knew about a job in village near Artemida or Delphi, and you would just show up hoping to find that person at a bar they frequented. In retrospect, it seems surprising how often those connections worked out. But at the time it was common. I miss the power and the self-reliance of those times. I miss the solitude and quiet of it.
Have you been back to Athens since that time?
Three years ago, my partner had an artist’s residency in Florence, and from Italy we travelled to Greece. (That sentence alone tells you how much my life has changed since I lived in Athens in the 1980s.) When we arrived, I went back to the hotel and the neighborhood where I’d been a runner; this was after the financial crisis, and even so the neighborhood was better than it had been when I lived there. The hotel was painted and had a sign out front, and there were no broken windows or garbage in the street, and it had an Internet café. The rate per night was seventy euros; but it was only twenty-two hundred drachmas, approximately seven dollars a night, when I had lived there.
But it was still Athens. It was still sprawling and dirty and intimate and beautiful. I went up to my old room and stood outside the door and all I wanted to do was stay.
"Beautiful and atmospheric. . . . A haunting novel, original and deeply sad." —Kirkus Reviews
"Ms. Hoffman writes like a dream—a disturbing, emotionally charged dream.” —The Wall Street Journal
"Explores the lingering echoes of our young, passionate friendships through time." —Newsweek
"Hoffman is fearless and trusting of her readers, and her precise prose captures the novel's many settings—Greece, Washington State, New York City—and her characters' feelings and actions, vividly." —Booklist (starred review)
“This uncompromising, incendiary novel holds true to the same fierce commitments as its haunting, haunted characters: it follows risk beyond all rules, and makes a kind of meaning I haven’t seen before. Caught between acts of radical violence and radical love, Hoffman’s poets and conmen are lost souls with no interest in being found, a queer family bound by affinity and nerve. I fell in love with them, and with this ferocious, brilliant book.” —Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You
"Strange and shocking and sad—Hoffman’s language is so deft and precise. I love the empathy with which she writes about the lives of outsiders, depicting the tenderness and fragility of their friendships so beautifully. Running is wonderful." —Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train
"Running is an unstoppable spark racing along a fuse. There is no escaping the heat, grime, or glittering promise of violence of Athens’s underbelly, but the bond between three young drifters is infused with moments of transcendence. I devoured this beautiful book, and Hoffman’s writing is a revelation." —Rae Meadows, author of I Will Send Rain
"Reading this novel was a conversion experience. I was immediately with the narrator, and I didn't care where we were going. Every sentence lit up with silver rain and smoke and the beauty of arriving in a foreign city and the defiance of needing almost nothing—and how strangely impossible it is when you lose that. Running is like taking a trip into a story you never knew you needed. You should take it, at once." —Alexander Chee, author of The Queen of the Night