Richard Russo 1949-
American novelist, screenwriter, and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Russo's career through 2002.
Awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for the novel Empire Falls (2001), Russo is noted for his evocative depictions of blue-collar life in depressed Northeastern towns and the struggles of emotionally scarred sons to come to terms with absent or abusive father figures. In Mohawk (1986), The Risk Pool (1988), and Nobody's Fool (1993), all set in rural upstate New York, Russo presents large casts of realistic, often eccentric characters—worn-out shopkeepers and odd-jobbers, alcoholics, invalids, rogues, and ne'er-do-wells—whose tragicomic lives are emblematic of the dignity and insular depravity of decaying rust-belt towns. Russo has also earned distinction for his comic academic novel, Straight Man (1997), as well as coauthoring the screenplay for the Hollywood film Twilight (1998).
Born in Johnstown, New York, to James W. Russo and Jean Findlay Russo, Russo grew up in the small, upstate New York town of Gloversville. His father, a construction worker, left the family when Russo was young. Russo studied English at the University of Arizona, earning his bachelor's degree in 1971 and completing a doctorate in American literature in 1980. While working on his dissertation, Russo realized that he wanted to write fiction rather than academic nonfiction. He spent a year working on his fiction writing skills while completing his dissertation and earned a master of fine arts degree in creative writing in 1981. During the summers, Russo worked as a manual laborer on construction and road crews, experiences that, coupled with his rural upbringing in the Northeast, helped shape his later fiction. Russo's 1986 debut novel, Mohawk, introduced readers to the author's central recurring theme—the plight of failing small towns in the United States and the effects of the decline on their inhabitants. Russo wrote his next novel, The Risk Pool, while his father was dying; the story is based in part on their relationship. Following the publication of two additional novels, Nobody's Fool and Straight Man, Russo collaborated with director Robert Benton on the screenplay for Twilight, a film starring Hollywood legend Paul Newman and actors Gene Hackman, James Garner, and Susan Sarandon. Newman starred in the critically acclaimed 1994 film adaptation of Russo's novel Nobody's Fool, which was also directed by Benton. Russo taught at several universities, including Southern Illinois University and Colby College in Waterville, Maine, before turning to writing full-time. He resides in Maine with his wife and two daughters. In addition to winning the Pulitzer, Russo was named a Pennsylvania Council of Arts fellow in 1983 and received the Annual Award for Fiction from the Society of Midland Authors in 1989 for The Risk Pool.
Russo's first two novels, Mohawk and The Risk Pool, are set in the fictional town of Mohawk, located in upstate New York. Mohawk opens in 1967 as the town's once thriving leather trade business is on the wane. The novel explores the obscure relationship and long-standing animosity between two elderly leather workers, Mather Grouse and Rory Gaffney. Their rivalry is played out among Mather's daughter, grandson, and various in-laws, resulting in a botched revenge scheme against Rory and wrongful accusations of murder. Some of the minor characters from Mohawk reappear in The Risk Pool, which centers upon a complex father-son relationship. The father, Sam Hall, returns from World War II to his wife, Jenny, who quickly becomes pregnant. When their son, Ned, is born, Sam has no desire to see him and disappears for the first six years of Ned's life. Upon his father's return, Ned, who narrates the novel, spends the rest of his childhood and adolescence being shuttled between his estranged parents, the alcoholic Sam and the mentally ill Jenny. Nobody's Fool continues Russo's focus on torturous father-son relationships with the story of the Sullivan family, four generations of misfits and failures. Set in the hamlet of North Bath, a moribund locale in upstate New York, the novel centers on Donald “Sully” Sullivan, the “nobody's fool” of the title. His warm, caring relationship with his grandson, Will, lends Sully the strength to confront memories of his abusive father and, eventually, to mend relations with his son and the North Bath community. A departure from his first two novels, Straight Man is an academic satire set in Pennsylvania. The protagonist, Hank Devereaux, is a marginal English professor at West Central Pennsylvania University, a small, nondescript institution. Devereaux is elected interim chair of the department because he is considered so incompetent that he cannot possibly upset the tenuous equilibrium among the below-average but mostly tenured faculty. He surprises everyone, including himself, when he assumes leadership and attempts to rescue the jobs of his colleagues, which are threatened by draconian budget cuts from the administration.
Empire Falls, Russo's fifth novel, reprises the blue-collar world of his earlier books, and is set in a dying mill town in Maine. The title comes from the name of the town, but it also resonates with the narrative's larger theme of dissolution. Empire Falls is almost entirely owned by the powerful Whiting clan, owners of the now defunct textile mill that was the town's primary industry. The patriarch of the family, the deceased C. B. Whiting, tried in vain to change the course of the powerful Knox River that runs through the town, and throughout the novel, various attempts to change the course of nature and destiny figure prominently. The novel's protagonist, Miles Roby, forsakes a college education and a possible academic career to return to Empire Falls to care for his ailing mother. Mrs. Francine Whiting—C. B. Whiting's widow and Miles's mother's former employer—allows Miles to run the Empire Grill diner where he works for the next twenty years, abandoning his past ambitions. As the novel opens, Miles's wife, Janine, who despairs his lack of motivation, has left him for an obnoxious local health club owner and frequent patron of the Empire Grill. Miles's one hope is that his teenage daughter, Tick, will escape Empire Falls, as he once intended. The book is also narrated from Tick's point of view in present-tense chapters that chronicle her growing frustration with the adult world. At school, Tick befriends an alienated loner named John Voss, whose murky history of loss and abuse comes to a violent conclusion in the novel's denouement. The depressed atmosphere of the failing small-town is further embodied by Miles's father, Max, a shifty though amiable layabout who frequently abandoned his family during Miles's youth. Miles and Tick's present-tense narration is alternated by italicized chapters that explore the history of Empire Falls and the complicated past that binds the Roby and Whiting families. The Whore's Child and Other Stories (2002), Russo's first collection of short fiction, features seven stories—two of which deal with the familiar blue-collar world of Russo's novels, while three feature academic settings reminiscent of Straight Man. The title story follows a Belgian nun who audits a creative writing class, bares her soul in a sordid memoir, and then is discomfited when her work is reinterpreted by the class. “Joy Ride” tells the story of a mother fleeing from her husband with her teenage son in tow; “Poison” is about the reunion of a pair of fifty-something writers; “The Farther You Go” presents an oddly sympathetic abusive husband; and “Monhegan Light” features a cinematographer who confronts his late wife's lover.
Russo has been consistently praised for his ability to sketch vivid portraits of hardscrabble working-class life in the blighted small towns of the American Northeast. Though his prose has been routinely regarded as competent and lucid, it has been his characterizations and mix of deadpan humor and knowing compassion that have earned him special distinction. Critics have noted that the broad scope and sprawling casts of characters of his novels display Russo's affinity for nineteenth-century authors, most notably Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. However, almost all of Russo's works have been criticized for excessive length, which some reviewers have argued weaken his numerous characterizations and circuitous subplots. Despite such claims, most commentators have insisted that Russo's narratives are rarely boring, but that his tendency to overwrite results in unnecessary repetitions and predictability. Others have objected to the recurring elements of sentimentality and melodrama in Russo's work, particularly in the conclusions of Mohawk and Empire Falls. Some critics have disagreed with this assertion, instead praising Russo's willingness to sublimate style to portraiture and to celebrate humanity through the lives of ordinary people living in small communities. While The Risk Pool has drawn acclaim for its gritty realism, Nobody's Fool and Straight Man have been lauded for their sharp comedy and deft characterizations. Empire Falls, considered Russo's most ambitious and mature work to date, has been widely praised for its rich multigenerational story, engaging characters, and bittersweet emotional themes. Russo's short fiction in The Whore's Child and Other Stories has been similarly well-received, with reviewers admiring the author's eye for detail and mordant wit.