Runner begins with Charlie Feehan mired in an interrupted state of grief. Too poor to be afforded the luxury of properly grieving his father's death from Spanish flu, Charlie and his mother must immediately figure out how to survive on their own. Charlie is thrust suddenly into being the "man of the house," which prompts him to take a job running errands for Squizzy Taylor. Because Charlie has no time to mourn his father, Charlie's sadness arises periodically and unexpectedly. He is rarely able to stop and reflect on how his father was important to him and what his absence truly means.
Violence is one of the novel's most pervasive themes. As an ever-present aspect of Charlie's life, violence occurs in overt and insidious ways. The most overt examples of violence arise when Charlie and Norman run into Barlow and his gang in the Fitzroy gardens, the shootings that are exchanged between Squizzy's gang and the Fitzroy push, and when Charlie comes home to find Mr. Peacock assaulting his mother—an incident that results in Charlie knocking the man out with a cricket bat. The novel's more insidious acts of violence include Squizzy's exploitation of Charlie's naivety and youth, the implicit threats Charlie uses against the people he needs to collect money from, and Mr. Peacock's exploitation of Ma once she has become reliant on him for firewood.
Early in the novel, Charlie comments on how his desire to no longer be cold provoked him to take up running as a means of generating heat; he likens being cold to being poor, as people in the Richmond slums have no money to properly insulate or heat their homes. By association, Charlie is not only trying to outrun the cold, he is trying to outrun his poverty. For Charlie, the fastest and easiest way of escaping poverty is to work for Squizzy Taylor, who, in exchange for the danger and moral compromise the job involves, pays him far more than any honest job Charlie could attain. What Charlie doesn't realize is how Squizzy exploits the desperation that arises from his poverty, just as Mr. Peacock exploits Ma's reliance on him for firewood. It is this desire to run away from the impoverished circumstances of his life that leads Charlie to eventually secure enough money to buy his own timber yard, meaning he and his family will no longer have to be cold or have to rely on predatory people who seek to exploit them.
Though he never uses the word himself, masculinity is another of Charlie's central concerns. In a patriarchal society, Charlie's loss of his father means he is put prematurely in the position of being the man of the house. He understands that he is too young to take on so much responsibility for his mother and infant brother, but Charlie nonetheless endeavors to pull the family out of their desperate situation. Charlie's relationship to masculinity is evident in the ways he compares his smaller stature to other boys his age, and how he believes becoming a boxer will impress Alice Cornwall, when in fact she detests boxers. When Charlie manages to run away from Barlow and his gang in the gardens, Charlie is ashamed of his cowardice and runs back to watch helplessly as Norman is beat bloody. Ultimately, Charlie only develops a healthy relationship with his masculinity when he renounces violence by quitting his work for Squizzy. He demonstrates his courage by remaining standing when Squizzy fires his gun past Charlie's head. The two men—both of small stature—are the only men standing in the room of hardened thugs when the gun goes off.
Charlie's ambition to escape poverty sets the plot of Runner in motion. Growing up poor in a slum, Charlie has few opportunities at his disposal; he acknowledges that people in Richmond need to take what they can get, even if it involves duplicity. His strong desire to achieve success as the man of his house leads him to accept an unjust win against the other boys in the egg race, and later to purposefully manipulate the odds against him in the Ballarat mile. While Charlie's determination leads him to lie and cheat often, he is ultimately successful in his goals. His ambition to outrun his poverty leads him to attain enough money to secure a wealthy future for himself and his family.
Trauma and PTSD
Though Charlie only understands the strange psychological state his mother enters after Mr. Peacock's traumatic assault as "her condition," he is in fact witnessing the superficial symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Ma is unable to meet Charlie's eyes when she speaks to him; she cleans the house compulsively; she neglects Jack; she carries a ladle at all times to protect herself, though she claims it is to kill cockroaches; and she covers her face in white powder as a means of hiding her face from the world long after her bruises have healed. Her peculiar choices can be explained as reactions to the abuse she suffered at Mr. Peacock's hands. While some of the effects may seem logical—carrying a weapon to prevent another possible attack—other elements of her condition are more superstitious in nature. It is likely she cleans the kitchen out of a need to purify the spot where the attack occurred, and possibly out of a superstitious belief that she can prevent calamity as long as she remains in control of her environment.
Perhaps the most important theme in Runner is power. Charlie's poverty means he is denied not only warmth, money, safety, and certainty, but also power. He discovers soon after he begins work with Squizzy that he appreciates the job because it gives him a power he has never known. Shop owners and policemen are afraid of Charlie because of his association with Squizzy. Charlie is even able to incapacitate Mr. Peacock with no repercussions because of the violent power Squizzy wields in Richmond. However, Charlie learns that to have power in Richmond requires exploiting others to maintain that power. Having power also exposes you to challenges, as Charlie learns when Barlow attacks him and Norman, or when Snowy Cutmore goes to war with Squizzy.
Runner Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Runner is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.