Several overarching thematic motifs connect a number of Richard Russo’s novels, certainly owing in part to the author’s own experiences. Five of his novels detail small-town life in places not so different from Gloversville, New York; Mohawk, The Risk Pool, and Bridge of Sighs are all set in or next to the fictional city of Mohawk, New York, a blue-collar factory city with unemployment and pollution problems stemming from its tannery industry. Nobody’s Fool is set in the similar fictional city of North Bath in the same region of New York, and Empire Falls is set in a small, dying mill town in rural Maine. In all these novels, Russo is interested in the connection of small-town lives and the ripple effects of frustrated ambitions and disappointments. Characters in his novels often have to choose between self-interest on one hand and sacrifice and selfless responsibility on the other. Even as he is interested in fathoming nineteenth century essayist Henry David Thoreau’s idea that most people live “lives of quiet desperation,” Russo is also interested in another quality that has perhaps become less common in the American strain: integrity.
Parenthood is another abiding interest in these novels. Problematic or troubling relationships between fathers and sons haunt Mohawk, The Risk Pool, Nobody’s Fool, and Straight Man. Donald “Sully” Sullivan in Nobody’s Fool, Hank Deveraux in Straight Man, Miles Roby in Empire Falls, and Lou Lynch in Bridge of Sighs are also defined, their needs, ambitions, and hopes qualified, by their roles as fathers. Similarly, strong women—as mothers, wives, mentors, and employers—often occupy central roles in the lives of Russo’s male characters. Despite the frequently dark or poignant subject matter of the novels, however, Russo’s rendering of self-destructive characters and bleak circumstances is often wry and humorous; much of his success and his reputation stem from the laconic wit of his novels.
Mohawk, New York, serves as a fictional stand-in for Gloversville. It, too, is a blue-collar town dependent on tanneries and factories to keep the town economically viable (if just barely). In Mohawk, Russo’s first novel, even as the tanneries die out and the city is made in some ways literally sick through the pollutants dumped into the town’s waterways by the industry, the tensions of economic dissolution are played out on a more overt level by the animus between two aging men: Mather Grouse, an ailing retired leather worker, a man with integrity and ethics, and his onetime coworker and (mostly) unspoken enemy, Rory Gaffney, a man with few scruples. The battles affecting Grouse and Gaffney permeate into the next generation. Mather’s daughter Anne, her husband Dallas, and her son Randall are products of the small-town cauldron that seeks both to forge them and to burn them out. Even as the older generation passes away, the younger generations have to decide between following their dreams or denying themselves
The Risk Pool
The Risk Pool is also set in Mohawk, and some characters from the prior novel appear. Ned Hall’s recondite and rebellious father, Sam, impregnated Ned’s mother, Jenny, just after returning from World War II; within six months of Ned’s birth, Sam has been kicked out of the house, never to return on a permanent basis. Ned does not see his father at all for many years, then he begins seeing him in short doses (as when his father kidnaps him for a weekend fishing trip that goes awry); these encounters serve to point out that his father is not appropriately responsible or suited for fatherhood. When Ned’s mother suffers a breakdown, Ned lives for a while with his father and must learn to fend for himself and to go with the currents of an irregular life as easily as does the notorious Sam. Two-thirds of the way through the novel, the narrative abruptly shifts forward in time almost two decades. In debt and in trouble, seeming his father’s son, Ned is summoned home to Mohawk after ten years away. He is faced with a choice similar to the one that his father made about Ned and his mother. Ned can either take responsibility for his ailing father and help him, or he can deny him.
One of Russo’s most esteemed and beloved novels, Nobody’s Fool tells the story of sixty-year-old Donald “Sully” Sullivan and a large supporting cast of characters, including Sully’s still-angry ex-wife, his...
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