Heartbreak Hill is the nickname for a long stretch of Commonwealth Avenue in Newton, Massachusetts, which rises to a crest just outside the border of Boston proper before leveling off and gradually descending toward city center:
…where the haze-haloed Boston sun drops behind the last node in the four-km. sine wave that is collectively called the historic April Marathon’s ‛Heartbreak Hill’…
Its reputation as the undoing of many participants in Boston’s Patriots Day marathon is almost a good metaphor for the struggles of the book’s characters, who buckle and break under the weight of their own addictions, psyches and other pressures.
The Marathon itself does not figure into the story, even though a few scenes occur in April and the marathon’s route almost passes right by E.T.A. and Ennet House. [Update: This entry originally, erroneously, stated that the course went right past them. D’oh!] But running is very much present in the book. The Enfield Tennis Academy’s student-athletes, struggling to succeed in amateur and (with a lot of hard work and luck) professional tennis, run this stretch on the regular:
Here is how to don red and gray E.T.A. sweats and squad-jog a weekly 40 km. up and down urban Commonwealth Avenue even though you would rather set your hair on fire than jog in a pack. Jogging is painful and pointless, but you are not in charge. Your brother gets to ride shotgun while a senile German blows BBs at your legs both of them laughing and screaming Schnell. Enfield is due east of the Marathon’s Hills of Heartbreak, which are just up Commonwealth past the Reservoir in Newton. Urban jogging in a sweaty pack is tedious.
The slightly odd phrasing—“Hills of Heartbreak,” I mean—sounds more like the garbled English of the Wheelchair Assassin Rémy Marathe than the O.E.D.-reading Hal Incandenza, but this line is in fact voiced by Hal, narrating Tennis and the Feral Prodigy, a short film by his brother Mario—the very one riding shotgun with the certifiable Head Coach and Athletic Director Gerhardt Schtitt.
Schtitt is actually Austrian, and not altogether un-avuncular, despite making “judicious use of his pea-shooter to discourage straggling sluggards” from the seat of his “war-surplus” motorcycle. Yet it is the physically malformed, non-tennis playing Incandenza Mario with whom he pals around:
Coach Schtitt and Mario tear-ass downhill on W. Commonwealth on Schtitt’s old BMW, bound for Evangeline’s Low-Temperature Confections in Newton Center, right at the bottom of what usually gets called Heartbreak Hill, Schtitt intense-faced and leaning forward like a skier, his white scarf whipping around and whipping Mario’s face, in the sidecar, as Mario too leans way forward into their downhill flight, preparing to whoop when they bottom out.
Visiting this infamous incline myself, I could easily see how its long, slow ascent might cause a runner to lose all hope, especially after mile twenty. Turning around and facing the other way, I could also see how terrifically fun it would be to bomb down it at excessive speeds, especially with a crazy old Teutonic mentor. Heartbreak Hill doesn’t have to be: it just depends on how you approach it.