Thursday, December 14, 2006

Richard Russo, "Nobody's Fool" (1993)

I looked forward to cracking open Richard Russo's Nobody's Fool (1993), since I'd read several of the author's novels in the past- including Straight Man (1997) and Empire Falls (2001- for which he received the Pulitzer Prize in 2002). These are very accessible, yet richly involved works. They tend to linger in the mind like places I've enjoyed visiting. Russo's plotlines are complex, and the lives that inhabit them interweave to create a fascinating patchwork.

Nobody's Fool is centered on the misadventures of a 60-year old laborer named Sully. Contending with a crippled knee, financial insovency, a dissatisfied lover, an insane ex-wife, and a needy best friend- Sully is finding it hard to age gracefully. His impulsive behavior and ironic detachment from the human race ensure that his situation is only going to get worse. Russo has a number of trials and tribulations for Sully to negotiate... and these are complicated by the ghost of Sully's dead father that seems to follow him around like a bad stink.

Just like Sully, so many of Russo's characters are deeply flawed. His protagonists are constantly creating difficulty for themselves. The omission of heroes from Russo's work allows us to relate to the situations and relationships that his people encounter. Many of them are downright unlovable, yet somehow Russo avoids any sense that he is judging his characters... or by extension... his readers. If his characters can muck up their lives and hope to find forgiveness (and maybe even redemption), then so can we... and that's a very heartening message to discover in fiction nowadays.

It may bother some readers that, despite the absurd amount of troubles that Russo's protagonists create for themselves and/or others, they always seem to come out better off for their struggles. This obviously goes against the grain of realism that Russo is able to establish with his well-drawn characters, but it somehow manages to satisfy the reader's need for cartharsis. If his books ended badly, they might just be too bleak to enjoy. One has already invested too much empathy for these folks to be philosophical about their utter destruction. They need a break, and so Russo mercifully finds a way for them to get one.

That's not to say that Russo isn't a cynic. Whether it be through their own actions, those of fate, or conscious sabotage... none of his characters are going to get off scot-free. They are going to be tested, picked at, analyzed, beat up, and provoked until they meet wit's end. And they are going to be hard on one another. One of the things I enjoy most about Russo's writing is its dark and sarcastic humor. He is often coming up with the kind of dialogue that I would like to store away for later use... to be recalled whenever I need a snappy retort to put someone down. Every once in awhile I come across a bit of banter that makes me laugh out loud. This serves to take a bit of edge off of the harshness of the characters' lives.

Ultimately though, Russo's strength lies in his sense of place. Like Faulkner's Mississippi or Woody Allen's Manhattan, Russo's small New England towns breathe with a sense of a specific culture and way of being. The insularity, resistance to change, gossip, and provincialism of the setting lends a fullness to the experience of reading his work. Consequently they also give his writing a cinematic sheen... which explains why several of his books have been made into films.


Anonymous jefg99 said...


Thanks for the comprehensive review. I too have read Straight Man and Empire Falls, the result of which has been Russo being one of my favorite authors. In fact, Straight Man has got to be in my top three of contemporary novels I've read. As someone close to me pointed out, there just may be alot of me in the main character. Perhaps that's why he recommended the book to me. I'll wait to pick up Nobody's Fool after the holidays (just in case I get lucky).

Too bad Russo has produced so few novels in the last decade. If he's working on a current one, I'll be right in the front of the line. I did pick up his compilation of short stories, The Whore's Child and Other Stories(2002). I'll be starting that as soon as I finish some light reading, The Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson, about growing up in small town America in the 50's and 60's.

8:43 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

I would imagine that we'll hear about a release date on Russo's next novel sometime during the next year. But I don't expect the book to be RELEASED next year.

2:38 PM  

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