John L. Parker Jr. took 30 years to write the sequel to his classic novel Once a Runner. Then he almost died, spending 16 days in a near-coma. He along with his fictional hero, Quenton Cassidy, discovered, monumental quests can be tougher the second time. By Benjamin Cheever Image by Peter Yang Published 10/23/2007
After three decades John L. Parker Jr. finished the endlessly awaited sequel to his beloved first novel, Once a Runner. It almost killed him. An artist’s crowning achievement is often fatal. Ulysses Grant died shortly after writing the last line of his memoir. Dreading “the curse of the ninth,” Mahler was afraid to complete his Ninth Symphony. He finished it. He died. And among runners, of course, there’s Pheidippides. Parker wrote the closing of Again to Carthage this spring–the lines written longhand while sitting in a canvas chair outside his Florida bungalow, his winter home. He continued to tinker with the manuscript until early September. Then, in the space of one week, he gave a reading of his new novel and ran a 5-K in Charleston, West Virginia, felt fluish, dispatched some final changes to his publisher, began coughing up, in his words, “raspberry jelly,” and ended up in the hospital with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart. And so the happy news that the book had finally arrived was tempered by the shock of its author’s illness. While Parker was in critical condition at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, a nation of runners sent up prayers and dispatched e-mail with a fury ordinarily reserved for the bell lap. “Kick butt in your ‘race’ today!” wrote one fan before doctors removed a mechanical aid from Parker’s heart and it began to beat again on its own.