Agony Hill by Roger Saltsman is a novel of redemption. Eric Roberts is teen-age distance runner whom we first meet running Agony Hill on a bitter New Year’s Day with his best friend Mary Klein. The two young people are good friends, although Eric tries Mary’s patience frequently with his competitiveness and obsession about becoming the best distance runner in the state. The son of a widowed mother who is the sole support of three boys, Eric is determined to win a racing scholarship to college and earn a bright future for himself. However, he is also a very poor loser, and his reaction to losing a race earns him punishment from the coach, and his immature sense of fun finds an outlet in practical jokes. When one joke results in badly injuring himself and getting another boy killed, his life takes a hard turn away from the future he wants so badly.
This novel has a great deal going for it. The story is captivating. I kept wondering if Eric would be able to come back from his self-imposed exile to face the consequences of the accident. I found the characters sympathetic, and I really cared what happened to Eric. Saltsman, himself a former competitive long-distance runner, knows how runners feel about winning and losing, how races are run, and how a runner trains for the longer races. I enjoyed learning about the inner world of the long distance runner. However, though Saltsman has promise as a writer, Agony Hill should have been held back from publication until he learned more about the craft of writing fiction.
The novel has several mechanical problems. For one thing, Saltsman uses too much backstory. Sometimes when he introduces a minor character, he tells more than I ever wanted to know about that character. Writers are often counseled to write mini-biographies of their main characters, but there is no need to include all of this information in a novel. It’s for the novelist’s use in the characterization, and we’re often told that it should not appear in the story. To provide details of a character’s background and aspirations is overkill, especially when the character appears only a few times. For a novel with several characters that appear once or twice, we don’t need to know their retirement plans, where they came from, or even their names. For example, he introduces a surgeon this way:
Dr. Charles Doughton was a runner at Notre Dame during his undergraduate studies and he knew how Eric would feel.
Another character appears briefly in the beginning and at the end of the book.
Roger Monroe Stamps, in his middle 60s, had started out his career as a young man in Yellowstone National Park before returning to Brevard. He planned to retire soon and finishing his career in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina was the icing on the cake for his career. He had grown up in Etowah, only a few miles away, and was glad to be home.
Another problem with the novel lies with the verb tenses. When a novel is written in past tense, it is clearer to indicate events that occurred prior to the time of the story in past perfect. For example, the sentence about the surgeon should be written, “Dr. Charles Doughton had been a runner at Notre Dame during his undergraduate studies and he knew how Eric would feel.” Likewise, “When he (Miklos) watched him (Eric) run in high school, he knew he could be a great runner” should have been “When he had watched him run in high school, he had known he could be a great runner.” (Repeating pronouns instead of occasionally using proper names can also be confusing to a reader.)
The chapters also have inconsistent time stamps. Chapters 1, 2, 4, 6, and 11 are headed with the month and the year. Chapter 12 is headed “One week later,” and chapter 19 “It was the middle of June.” None of the other chapters have any indication as to when they occur in the timeline of the story. Chapters 1, 2, 3 and 6 take place in 1979; chapter 4 occurs in 1975 and contains a lengthy back story of Eric’s meeting with Mary. Chapter 5 has no heading, which leads me to suppose the reader should figure out that it also is set in 1975.
Writing coaches often recommend against using third-person omniscient point of view (POV) as Saltsman does, because it’s a) old-fashioned and b) difficult to control. Even old-fashioned techniques might have their place in modern novel-writing, but I agree that omniscient POV is difficult to control, especially for beginners. It’s entirely too easy to slip from one character’s POV to another character’s POV in the same paragraph or even in the same sentence. A better practice is to limit the POV to one character in a scene. That way, the reader’s head doesn’t spin if one character’s POV follows directly on that of another character’s. For example, the POV shifts from paragraph to paragraph:
“I guess,” Eric said, meekly, realizing how perceptive the older man had been the last two months.
Miklos hesitated for a moment, and decided he would coach Eric under one condition: he had to commit, unconditionally.
In this example, the POV changes between sentences:
(POV Jennifer, Rodney, and Eric) For Jennifer, Rodney and Eric the house had been vacant for as long as they could remember. They never thought much about it, but the rumor around town was the house was haunted and a brutal murder was committed there. (POV to Eric) Eric asked his mom one time about the murder but she never wanted to talk about it. (POV to Rodney and Jennifer) Rodney and Jennifer had heard stories also but could never get a straight answer out of anyone when questioned about the subject. It was as if the town wanted to hide what happened on that fateful night. (POV to Eric) When Eric went to the library to look up the story in the newspaper archives he found nothing: the articles were missing, torn out.
This paragraph also shows the final problem to be pointed out: Too much telling rather than showing. Instead of taking the reader to the newspaper office to look at the archive and making the discovery that the clippings about the house were missing, we are told about it in retrospect. If something this mysterious is important enough to tell about, it is important enough to be shown. Otherwise, I’d recommend leaving it out. Another example of telling rather than showing is this:
Jen’s mom never married in the Catholic church. And after two failed marriages, she lost interest in everything related to faith. She was always a wonderful mother to Jen and never got in her way with how she felt about her faith. Eric went to Saint Phillip’s Episcopal Church, the one he passed on the way to Mary’s house.
The story of Eric’s redemption from selfish, arrogant kid whose thoughtlessness causes his own serious injury and a friend’s death is a compelling one, in that Eric earns his way back through running. The conclusion is never a given, what with his tendency to screw himself up by his own efforts, and that very tendency adds to the suspense and kept me reading despite the problems with the book. Both the race and Eric’s redemption are in doubt till the finish line.
It’s not easy to design a character’s arc of development, but Saltsman does a good job of taking his protagonist through the necessary changes. They are logical and consistent with his characterization, which is, in my view, the best thing about Agony Hill.