Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Racism and forms of oppression are at the center of everything in Runner Mack. When Henry arrives at Home Manufacturing, Peters, the personnel officer, gets details wrong in discussing the local professional football team, but Henry has learned that a black man dare not correct a white man. Another executive says, “They all believe in God,” one of several instances of racial stereotyping uttered by Henry’s bosses. The executives examine his teeth and, in a restroom, stare at his penis, making Henry feel as if he is a slave.

Henry recalls a central event of his Mississippi childhood: A neighboring white family wants to buy his younger brother’s dog, and when his father refuses, the whites kill it. John Adams sees this incident as yet another example of why African Americans must give in to whites if they are to survive, an attitude the adult Henry understands but rejects.

Racism is only part of the pervasive sense of oppression that retards the development of any individuality in Runner Mack. When Henry goes to the restroom during his Home Manufacturing interview, the executives chase after him, shouting, “Don’t try to run away, you can’t escape!” Privacy is impossible in a world controlled by a paranoid corporate mentality.

This oppression is best illustrated by the invasion of Henry and Beatrice’s apartment. Such inexplicable violence can occur to anyone at anytime or anywhere. Worrying about Beatrice later, Henry thinks that her sudden disappearance would “seem almost naturally unnatural.” In Henry’s world, psychological unease and racial/social pressure are inescapable. One of the most ironic moments in this heavily ironic novel comes when Henry defends his being drafted to Beatrice: “I have to fight for my country—it’s our country. . . . How do you expect me to play ball for a team if they know I didn’t want to keep this country safe?” The country has hardly been a safe place for him and his family.

Three major agents...

(The entire section is 825 words.)

Runner Mack Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Beckham’s world is an absurd one. Superficially, the events of this world seem to be ruled by the laws of cause and effect: If one is good enough at baseball, one can become a major league player; if one works hard at one’s job, one can advance in the company; if enough people are discontented with society, they will rebel and change their society. Ultimately, however, the events of the novel, viewed realistically, suggest that there is no logic in human responses or in human institutions. In this world, human beings keep themselves very busy convincing themselves and others that the world is not absurd.

As in every novel of initiation, Henry Adams moves toward understanding, and he does come to understand some truths about the nature of the world. He learns that one cannot depend on human beings: His friend on the baseball team cannot really help him, and the supposed revolutionaries will not turn up for the revolution. Yet although people’s words are unreliable, they produce them with great enthusiasm and distrust anyone who questions their relation to fact, as the Home Manufacturing Company staff distrusts Henry. Furthermore, although everyone will talk, very few people will communicate. “Mr.” Boye is reprimanded for talking honestly to Henry, and throughout the novel Beatrice continues in her misery to distance herself further and further from Henry and from the world of which he is a part until at last she is totally deaf. Finally, most people will not protest cruelty, whether it be in the form of a trick baseball or in the government-sanctioned butchery of innocent caribou. Indeed, there is something in man which enjoys killing—a common denominator which reduces Henry to the level of his commanding officer in Alaska.