David Corbett’s Do They Know I’m Running? is like broccoli and chocolate. On one hand it’s good for you and you should read it but on the other it tastes REALLY good so you don’t mind. But that is a terrible way to start a review.
We live in a culture that craves the simple answer and clings, unfailingly, to the belief that every problem has one. When presented with a problem, regardless of how complex it is, we believe that its solution can be distilled to a line. A pat answer. Perhaps it is as simple as saying that it is an extension of the sound bite era taking to its most logical and damning conclusion. I would go so far as to say that most people don’t even want to see how complex a problem is. If we choose not to engage completely in complex problems then we are willfully complicit in our own stupidity and our eventual demise. One of these issues that people insist on being reductive in their thinking about is immigration. EVERYONE who has an opinion on immigration (regardless of what that opinion is) should be required to read this book. Not because it offers the definitive answer to a problem that doesn’t have one but because it marries a thorough examination of the subject with a thrillers pace and comes away saying this is a conversation we should be having but we aren’t doing it right.
The basic premise of the story is a simple on — A blue collar working man gets deported and his son and step-sons go after him to bring him home. Every character is brought to life with complex personalities, shifting motives and contradictory actions that are sometimes self-preserving and other times altruistic. Do They Know I’m Running? employs a quest structure and Roque Montalvo, the protag of the book, has a remarkable character arc that will take him from the folly of youth belief that he already a man to self assuredness that comes with having actually done it and come though the other side of actually being a man.
The writing is facile and shows great range. It is tender when it wants to be and tough when it has to be. For a book that is this complex Do They Know I’m Running? flat out moves. It starts off quick and never lets up keeping the reader in a position of not knowing what’s going to happen next and needing to find out.
In the wake of the release of Jonathan Franzen’s newest novel, Freedom, and his picture appearing on the cover of Time magazine, the talk of the Great American Novelist came up again. A lively part of this ongoing debate (and a great way to get hip to some new and different authors/books) was the recommendations for who SHOULD have been given the title, the cover story and the hype. My participation in these discussions of who are overlooked great American novelists ultimately distilled to four names – two that are older and have been around for decades and two that are younger and have only been publishing novels for the last decade — James Ellroy, Charles Portis, Jess Walters and David Corbett. Stylistically Walters and Corbett are not alike but thematically these two writers are engaging in some of the most vibrant grappling of current issues in contemporary fiction and doing so in way that will resonate with readers now and future generations.
Do They Know I’m Running? Is David Corbett’s fourth novel and it’s his best yet.