"If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall," the Russian writer Anton Chekhov supposedly once said, "in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off."
In Robert Andrew Powell's new memoir, Running Away, the walls aren't equipped with rifles but with inspirational quotes. Chirpy and upbeat, they are the aphorisms of American self-help culture. The slogans from athletic shoe advertisements. The stuff of grade-school cafeteria posters. "To change one's life: Start immediately," reads one plastered on Powell's apartment wall. "Do it flamboyantly. No exceptions."
These platitudes might lack firepower, but they are nonetheless persuasive. And when Powell's life falls apart, he turns to them for meaning. As the quotes instruct, he dramatically ditches his life in Miami and drives cross-country to the city's climatological and spiritual opposite: Boulder, Colorado. There he attempts to shed his South Florida sloth and recast himself as a disciplined runner, like his successful businessman father. He trains obsessively in a feverish attempt to duplicate his dad's feat of qualifying for the Boston Marathon within his first year of running. He loses weight, drops time, wins admirers.