Assaf and Tamar have never met each other -- in fact, they aren't even aware of each other's existence -- and yet somehow their lives are inextricably connected, intertwined, even interdependent. We just don't know how, or why. But from the very beginning of "Someone to Run With," by the Israeli author David Grossman, we understand that these two lonely, aimless teenagers (Assaf is a boy and Tamar a girl) are meant for each other, and meant to save each other from the perils of the streets -- drugs, poverty, hopelessness and even a former wrestler-turned-hustler who pimps out runaway street performers while his goons pick the pockets of clueless audience members.
Wait just a second here. Lonely, aimless teenagers? Lives inextricably connected? Drugs, perils, pimps, performers and pickpockets? Alarm bells are probably going off in your heads now, and for good reason. It's true, "Someone to Run With" has all the necessary ingredients of a bad after-school special, in which young freckle-faced Timmy tries pot for the first time, only to be told by his best friend Suzy that "drugs are baaaaaad," saving him just in the nick o' time from a desperate existence totally devoid of the good eating habits, regular flossing and 401K plans that make middle-class reality so fulfilling.
Thankfully, though, Assaf is no Timmy, Tamar is no Suzie, and Grossman is no two-bit hack television writer, but is actually one of Israel's most accomplished authors. His ability to construct two characters who are both emotionally complex and extremely likable -- and, yes, awkward teenage misfits -- raises this book from a potential cliché to a fully realized work, and a delight to read.
Grossman's expert development of Assaf and Tamar derives from his equally skillful pacing of the story line. His first section (of six), which focuses on establishing the characters, is disproportionately large, taking up a third of the book's pages. Assaf, we learn, is working a summer job at Jerusalem's city hall. Today's task consists of finding the owner of a stray dog, but he has virtually no clues to go on. Assaf is left with one strategy: to put the filthy, frantic pooch on a leash and follow her wherever she leads him. So we learn things about the dog's owner (you guessed it, Tamar) along with Assaf.
Unlike the hapless but well-meaning Assaf, we also have the benefit of access to Tamar's back story, which Grossman intersperses with the narrative. As he keeps the story moving forward at a solid clip, he also steadily opens the door into the lives of the two central characters. Like so many of us at that stage of our lives, neither has truly explored the boundaries of his/her personality, and neither really understands what kind of strength and goodness they're capable of.
Assaf is introverted, barely able to speak to strangers, much less assert himself. He badly needs a challenge like finding this dog's owner -- and ultimately rescuing her -- to unlock his potential. Tamar is an extrovert, an artist, a tremendous singer. But she's also filled with self-doubt and unable to trust others. Like Assaf, she faces a challenge that will finally allow her to prove her own worth: rescuing her junkie brother, Shai, from a criminal organization that makes a business out of exploiting gifted but troubled teenagers.
Tamar's challenge, and the dangerous path it leads her down -- which is slowly revealed to us throughout the first half of the novel -- is the prime mover of the story. It's also the first domino that, when pushed, causes a chain reaction that brings her and Assaf together -- their meeting, their ability to experience each other being the climax of two dependent, yet independent, journeys of self-discovery.
And yes, before that moment of redemption occurs, there takes place a whole host of events that may make the cynics out there snicker, the literary purists smirk, and the sentimentalists weep with joy or smug, self-fulfilled sadness. There is an evil hustler who pushes smack. There is a streetwise ex-gang member with a heart of gold. There are bad men and drug busts. There is a boy and his dog. There is a girl and her dog. And yes, that dog, in the tradition of Lassie, Benji and even "Turner and Hooch," exhibits cognitive and emotional capabilities well beyond the crotch-sniffing and leg-humping of your average canine.
But, damn it, somehow Grossman makes it all work, all feel real and right. So that by the end of "Someone to Run With," you'll be so in love with Assaf and Tamar that when they do finally, predictably fall in love with each other, good is all you'll feel.
-- Christopher Farah