Id. Ego. Superego. Freud divided the human psyche into three parts, and the concept resonates through 20th century culture. When one man’s id comes to life (or does it?), and his superego can’t deal with it, what will happen?
Alan Zweibel, a writer with great comic chops, takes that idea and sets it against the New York City Marathon, juggling a present-day narrative of Shulman (no first name given) running his race, and Shulman’s training for the marathon with a group of other first-time runners raising money for AIDS research. The marathon portion of the story introduces themes and memories, along with Shulman’s joyful antics as he maintains his 3-minute run/1-minute walk pace through the welcoming and colorful boroughs. (At that rate, he calculates it will take him 6 hours and 2 minutes to finish the race; 4 hours slower than the 2009 winner.)
Training for the Marathon is an escape from Shulman’s real life, and it isn’t hard to understand why. He’s an overweight businessman whose small fine stationery and newspaper store is failing. His adopted town of Fort Lee, NJ now prefers the big box stores and malls, bypassing the once-thriving community landmark for the same-old brand stores and bins of cheap pens that he won’t carry. His children have grown up, and he can no longer think of himself as the dad who sponsored their Little League teams and activities. Worst of all, the wife he loves has lost interest in him. He’s never been aggressive or ambitious enough for her, and with her own business taking off she’s beginning to avoid him.
So when he spots a poster for the marathon training group, he takes it on as an antidote to his life’s inertia. Everyone thinks he’s nuts – he’s never exercised and hates running. He weighs 250 pounds, and jokes that the 35 pounds he has repeatedly gained and lost could be used to make Another Shulman. Lo and behold, that joke seems to come true, but it isn’t funny anymore.
The Other Shulman starts showing up in his life: knocking him down during training, opening a competing office supply store, luring his one employee away, vandalizing his doctor’s office (on camera), and maybe even seducing his wife. To top it off, The Other takes credit for the successful fundraising effort Shulman has put in as part of his marathon training. Everyone around him believes in The Other, but the real Shulman has only one encounter with his id(?) and can’t get others to believe that he’s been doing the good stuff and not responsible for the bad stuff. When the inevitable showdown comes, Shulman has to make the split-second decision – out-id the id? Out-ego it? Or let the superego control his life?
The other characters in the story never really coalesce, but that’s OK because Shulman is at a point in his life where, for the first time, he’s only thinking about himself. As the story heads towards the finish line, that self-centeredness crashes in on him as he learns that people do care about him and that he is the bond that holds family and community together. (The fact that he’s known as “GLUE” is a running joke, but its truth becomes clear at the very end.)
Zweibel’s comic touch makes this story a light, enjoyable read. He has a gift for both extended funny scenes and one-liners that can make the reader laugh out loud (not so great if you have a mouthful of turkey sandwich in public). Like all good humor, though, the poignancy at its heart doubles its impact and makes the book more thoughtful than it first appears.
Check the WRL catalog for The Other Shulman