IN Samuel "Bullet" Tillerman, the central character in her new novel The Runner, Cynthia Voigt has created a young tragic hero. Silent, unyielding, Bullet keeps to his principals and goes after his personal goals with no compromises -- not with circumstances and certainly not with other people. His tragic flaw, if you will, is the classic one of hubris. He thinks he can remain above it all. Bullet, for whom honesty and doing one's best are the motivations for everything, desperately wants his friends to share the same aspirations. Yet he refuses to try and convince others to set those goals. When his friends fail to be as good as they can be, he wants "not to care."
Bullet is a brilliant high school runner with not only the strength and reflexes of talented athlete but the doggedness it takes to turn talent into victory. He runs 10 miles a day in all kinds of weather. And he runs cross-country for his Eastern Shore Maryland high school. He always wins. Bullet's running is the frame on which Voigt builds her story, the energy which impels it. Sometimes running is all that keeps Bullet himself going.
Through school crises, family warfare, through tests that shake his character to its foundation, he keeps running. The novel begins with a run along the 10-mile course Bullet has laid out though the marshes bordering his family's farm and climaxes with a state track meet.
During the intervening months the boy is a silent combatant in a test of wills with his father John Tillerman, a bitter middle-aged farmer who has already managed to drive his two older children out of the house. Bullet, 17, is only biding his time. The year is 1968, and the issue between father and son is -- hair. Bullet has let his grow, and his father orders it cut. In defiance, Bullet has his head shaved. He is thereafter banished from the dinner table, his mother forbidden so much as to cook a pork chop for him.
Besides running, the other anchor in Bullet's life is his mother Abigail. As strong and stoic as Bullet, she bends but never breaks under her husband's tyranny. She and Bullet have a relationship of mutual respect, trust, and certainly love, although neither seems able to express it. "He could read her and she could read him, which was the closest they came to talking." Much is communicated through silence in the Tillerman household.
THE ATMOSPHERE inside the farmhouse helps build our sympathy for Bullet. Outside his own home, however, he's less likeable, more exasperating. With his classmates, he is often arrogant and inscrutable. (Bullet has never heard of peer pressure.) The high school has recently been integrated, but Bullet will have nothing to do with "coloreds," as he calls the black studets. Although he almost single-handedly halts a racial brawl at the school when he attacks the white bully who's started it, his action is prompted not by any liberal principles but by his disdain for messiness. "The last thing he wanted to put up with was a riot. That wasn't even clean fighting."
Voigt handles Bullet's racial prejudice and his gradual enlightenment deftly by working in a black runner, a newcomer to Bullet's track team. His name is Tamer Shipp and he slowly gains Bullet's respect, not because he seeks it but because he wants to be as good as he can be. Tamer and Patrice, the French waterman for whom Bullet works after school tonging oysters and netting crabs, together convince Bullet that a man's worth depends on his character, not his race.
All of which is to say that Voigt sails The Runner through some heavy seas, but always with a steady hand. She's never preachy, her story never contrived for didactic purpose. All she gives us here is plausible and engaging. Her scenes of high school life -- assemblies, classes and, above all, the cafeteria -- are perfectly drawn, her little river town of "Crisfield" and the country around it lovingly rendered.
She first introduced Crisfield and the Tillermans in 1980 in her novel Homecoming. Subsequently, there have been three novels; Dicey's Song, which won the 1982 Newbery Medal, followed by A Solitary Blue and now The Runner. Together they have steadily built up detail about the life and personalities of the Tillermans and Crisfield. Ever since the last sentence of Dicey's Song, some of us have been waiting to learn more about Bullet. In that final scene, some time in the late 1970s, we left Abigail Tillerman and her four grandchildren looking through an album of childhood pictures of their mother and two uncles, Jonathan and Samuel, the latter known as ''Bullet." Those who have read the earlier Tillerman novels will also know what becomes of Bullet. Those who meet him here for the first time will not be surprised at his fate. Bullet is certainly a prickly character; if we met him in, say, the high school lunch room, he might seem cold and aloof. We might even "want not to care" about him. Voigt's accomplishment is to make us care about Bullet, and care deeply.