Richard Russo’s rise to prominence in the American literary world is a success story that gives one hope that serious fiction writing still has a future. After producing four novels that generated a good deal of critical enthusiasm but only modest commercial success, Russo finally broke free of the pack with Empire Falls (2001), his big-hearted Pulitzer Prize- winning tale about the decaying fortunes of small town America, the anguish of parenthood, and the persistence of faith. While the publication only a year later of The Whore’s Child is not likely to establish Russo as a master of the short story, it is nonetheless an artfully crafted collection.
Three of the stories in this collection are notable for their deft handling of a theme that Russo excels in: the journey that leads, not to the renewal of love or the liberation from constraint that one had hoped for, but ironically to shattering revelations of inadequacy or culpable ignorance, or simply to resignation. In “Joy Ride,” for example, a still- young mother attempts to escape a marriage she can no longer tolerate, not because her husband is abusive or adulterous or feckless, but simply because he is annoying. She absconds with the family Ford and her twelve-year-old son John and strikes out for southern California. “It’s a free country and I’m a free woman,” she announces as they drive out of town. “We’re bound for freedom, sweetie.” However, freedom, as the reader begins to suspect early in the narrative, will prove to be elusive. Told from the point of view of the son, looking back some twenty years after the event, “Joy Ride” races across a dozen states in half as many pages, hilariously narrating the misadventures of this pair of renegades from domesticity, as the intoxication of freedom gives way to frustration and, finally, the shock of reality. After his mother is molested by a psychotic cowboy in Tucumcari, John recalls that he is not surprised when the final leg of their journey is cut short and “his mother turned down the highway toward Phoenix, where my grandparents lived,” or when they sell the Ford and fly back to Maine shortly thereafter. Indeed, he later comes to believe that she never had a very clear idea of what they might have done had they reached southern California. He does find it remarkable that she was “from then on, a dutiful wife” and that throughout the years that followed, she staunchly maintained the fiction that it had all “been nothing more than a vacation to visit my grandparents.” John learns to stifle his anger at this untruth, and thus a marriage is salvaged by a lie and a conspiracy of silence between mother and son.
In “Buoyancy” yet another journey is undertaken, this time with frightening consequences for its protagonist, Paul Snow. A recently retired professor of American literature, Snow has spent decades laboring to produce books of conventional literary criticism but is embittered by how eagerly his colleagues at a small Eastern college embrace his trendy, more politically aware replacement and suspects that they “secretly share his own dubious opinion of his life’s work.” Now, with time on his hands, he is able to fulfill an oft-postponed promise to take his wife, June, on a vacation to a seaside resort that they had visited many years before as a newly married, and still passionate, couple. In this story, Russo shifts to limited-omniscient narration, giving access to Snow’s nervous anxiety that June, who years before had suffered a mental breakdown, might at the slightest provocation slip into a relapse of the earlier episode. At that time she had unleashed a torrent of “rage against him . . . ending in unbearable regret and sadness” over his neglect and his infidelity with a graduate student. Their marriage, it seems, has been as conventional as his career, leaving little for her to do but play the role of dutiful academic wife. Now it seems to Snow that her “equilibrium was fragile still and could collapse without apparent, immediate cause.” The central irony of “Buoyancy” is that it is Snow’s equilibrium rather than his wife’s which is fragile. This he learns after their arrival at the resort, in a profoundly humiliating scene on a beach frequented by nude bathers. First, Snow is shocked by June’s impulsive desire to strip off her bathing suit and expose her still attractive body, then frightened when, after he wakes—scorched by the sun—she has disappeared. Panicked, Snow assumes that she has suffered the relapse he fears, and stumbling down the beach he searches for her for what seems to him like hours. His mind reeling, he blames himself for his infidelity and their childless marriage; he remembers, as well, how she too had once confessed to an affair, and how eager he had been to pretend that it had all been a menopausal illusion. Finally, a combination of sunstroke and emotional upheaval bring Snow to his knees and face-to-face with a horrifying vision of death. In the end it is Snow himself who is...
(The entire section is 2045 words.)