SOURCE: Montrose, David. “Fightin' an' Feudin'.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4379 (6 March 1987): 246.
[In the following excerpt, Montrose praises Russo's structure and characterization in Mohawk, but faults the novel for elements of melodrama and excessive length.]
Small-town USA (North-eastern variety) is the milieu for each of these first novels. Richard Russo's Mohawk is a declining leather town in upstate New York, Cathie Pelletier's Mattagash a lumber town whose rusticity and isolation are exceptional even by the standards of backwoods Maine. The similarities do not end there. Both novels are preoccupied with ties of blood and emotion. They share, too, a structure which intersperses the central plot with scenes from their characters' personal histories.
Set in 1967, the opening section of Mohawk revolves around the mysterious bond between two antithetical old men: upright Mather Grouse, a retired leather-cutter in precarious health, and Rory Gaffney, a detested one-time workmate who has long exerted a baneful influence on his life. Gaffney is the father of the “town moron”, Wild Bill, fifteen years earlier a normal teenager (with a crush on Mather's daughter, Anne) until “damaged” in an unexplained “accident”. The clarification of these interconnected enigmas proceeds slowly, impeded as it is by the regular introduction of fresh characters—notably Mrs Grouse and Anne's son, Randall—and the piecemeal exploration of relationships past and present: between Mather and Anne; between Anne and her ex-husband, Dallas; between Anne and her cousin's wheelchair-bound husband, Dan, whom she adored even before she married; between Dallas and his brother's widow. …
This peripheral abundance is all to the good, however, since the enigmas jointly prove something of a damp squib when unfolded early in the second part of the novel (the first having ended with Mather's funeral). The action has jumped five years; the focus switches to Randall, now a college dropout and dodger of the Vietnam draft. Circumstances equip him to exact unbloody vengeance against Rory on his grandfather's behalf; but at the climax of the novel—enacted, melodramatically, during a thunderstorm—the scheme goes haywire in a fashion that leads to three corpses and Randall's wrongful arrest for murder. Things end sunnily, however. Randall avoids both gaol and those sent to claim him for Uncle Sam, while Anne also escapes, severing the twin strings that bind her to Mohawk—love for Dan and filial duty—and lighting out for a new start in distant Phoenix.
Throughout its first section especially, Mohawk is an accomplished piece of fictional architecture, while the characterization is rarely less than competent (it is striking only in the case of Mrs Grouse, a domestic tyrant inexplicably determined to eradicate earthworms from her lawn). The novel's situations, though, often have a touch, occasionally more than a touch, of soap opera about them: strangely, considering Russo's status as a Granta-published dirty realist. But then the incisive prose associated with the genre is also absent. So, too, is the concision: at 406 pages, Mohawk's mainstream realism is decidedly overblown.
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...
(This entire section contains 1483 words.)
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.
SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Sticking around with Dad.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (13 September 1988): 3, 8.
[In the following review, Eder comments that, despite the novel's “impeccable” realism, the weak protagonist in The Risk Pool ultimately makes the novel a “bore.”]
The American archetype, the loner, the cowboy, the man who rides into town, gives it a clout or two and rides off into the sunset: His virtue, above all, is to ride off.
He doesn't stick around. Around, he wouldn't be interesting. Around, he would be a pest.
For around, in life and fiction, we need another kind of character: one who works into society and tugs its strings—if not so hard as to bring it all down, then just hard enough to alter its shape and make it budge; and who gets entangled in those strings, has his own shape altered, and budges.
The narrator of Richard Russo's The Risk Pool is an uneasy settled man whose story is a lament for his cowboy father. Sam Hall—as in the song “My Name it is Sam Hall, and I hate you one and all”—is a becalmed cowboy who sticks around.
In fact, he is a highway construction worker and not a cowboy; he lives in a depressed Upstate New York town and not in the West, and he runs off periodically. But it amounts to sticking around. He always comes back.
The Risk Pool tries to fuse the aura of an eccentric loner hero with that of a departed, outsize father. The narrator seeks his own identity by revisiting the broken ground of the bumpy relationship.
It is an inward-turning theme, and it has been heavily worked in our fiction of recent decades. It must be said that Russo, though he makes an appealing effort, works it heavily. His book brings back a place—the town of Mohawk—and a number of lives whose obscurity he will redeem by lighting them up. He strikes matches but some misfire and others catch for only a few moments.
We meet Sam Hall more or less in mid-brawl. He slugs the lawyer who comes to tell him that his wife, Jenny, wants a divorce. The marriage had lasted for the years Sam was away in World War II, and only a little while after his return and the birth of Ned, the narrator. Jenny was fed up with a husband who spent most of his time with his cronies at the local bars.
For the next 30 years or so—the time covered by the novel—Sam will come and go, work for a spell, drink and gamble for another spell and take up with a waitress named Elaine. He is an affable hell-raiser, a Northern good ol' boy. He keeps his energy, his spirits, his charm, by taking life at the level that pleases him and ignoring or running away from the knottier bits.
Jenny, on the other hand, sits and takes it, knots and all. She takes Sam, until she kicks him out; then she takes an emotional young priest who ends their affair after one night, by running out of Mass and disappearing when she appears the following morning at the communion rail. The episode, melodramatic and choppy, is one of several attempts by the author to inflame his ordinary lives.
Taking it turns Jenny sour. She will have a mental breakdown, recover into a state of prim crabbiness and, years later, move to California with her lawyer, who has also become her lover. Ned grows up in Mohawk, shuttling between Jenny and Sam until he goes off to college. Later, settled in New York, he will return periodically to visit his father.
While Jenny is in a mental hospital, Ned stays with Sam in a loft above the local department store. They extract merchandise through a faulty elevator door, and Ned comes and goes as he likes, eating at the local bar and grill where Sam has opened a charge account for him. It is a kind of Huck Finn stage; the boy briefly shares his father's free and rambling existence.
It is a male existence; with the women off to one side. Sam's long relationship with the self-reliant Elaine peters out eventually, and she marries someone else. He can make no commitments; the reward is exuberance; the price is a loneliness laced with sterility.
Even Sam's male friendships are limited and hedged in. Mike, a barman, helps Sam out when he's in trouble, and shows a real devotion to him. Wusser, a fishing companion, seems to want a genuine friendly intimacy. But Sam lives by the Mohawk code: Every man for himself, and a friend is someone who sits at the next bar stool and covers for you if your wife or girlfriend phones.
When he grows up, Ned moves away from the code, but he sees himself marked by it. An adolescent crush on Tria, the daughter of the richest man in town, is followed, later, by a brief affair when Ned comes back from college. Soon, though, he is neglecting Tria to hang out with Sam and his cronies.
At the end of the book, after Sam dies, the woman Ned lives with in New York gives birth. His first sight of their son is told in virtually the same phrases used to describe Ned's own birth and Sam's first glimpse of him. It seems to signal that the desolate man-woman cycle of estrangement could easily begin again. It is a rather contrived signal.
There are moments of evocative humor and nostalgia in The Risk Pool. Russo has written some powerful scenes, several of them evoking the choked, dangerous tension between Sam and Elaine's hyped-up biker son, Drew. A sentence will flash out here and there; for example, one that describes Jenny's penny-watching cautiousness:
She always congratulated herself on the fact that she had nothing to worry about, and wouldn't have; as long as she continued to worry all the time.
Russo's realism is impeccable. His descriptions of the depressed and restricted lives of Mohawk's inhabitants is concrete and vivid. But the devices he uses to make them more than real; to touch them with magic, tend to fall flat. Tria never manages to become the elusive, lost princess that the author seems to intend; she is gone before you see her. Drew, the biker, fails to take on the beautiful-but-damned quality that appears to be meant for him.
And Sam, the cowboy who doesn't ride off, becomes a bore. His allure is there but it doesn't last. After the first several hundred pages, his unpredictability becomes entirely predictable. His gleam is caught in an oversized book that remembers it to death.
Mohawk (novel) 1986
The Risk Pool (novel) 1988
Nobody's Fool (novel) 1993
Straight Man (novel) 1997
Twilight [with Robert Benton] (screenplay) 1998
Empire Falls (novel) 2001
The Whore's Child and Other Stories (short stories) 2002
SOURCE: Wolitzer, Hilma. “Richard Russo's Tale of a Reckless Father and a Sensitive Son.” Chicago Tribune Books (30 October 1988): 1.
[In the following review, Wolitzer compliments Russo's “remarkable fix on blue-collar life in small-town America” in The Risk Pool but criticizes the novel for underdeveloped female characters.]
As he clearly demonstrated in Mohawk, his fine first novel, Richard Russo has a remarkable fix on blue-collar life in small-town America. His second novel also takes place in fictive Mohawk, in upstate New York, and has some of the same peripheral characters. Once again, Russo brilliantly evokes the economic and emotional depression of a failing town, a place where even the weather is debilitating and the inhabitants seem to struggle merely to stay in place. Although The Risk Pool is not as intricately plotted as Mohawk, it is a far more ambitious work, with a Dickensian sprawl and charm.
The narrative is broken into four sections, named for the “seasons” of the year in Mohawk: “Fourth of July,” “Mohawk Fair,” “Eat the Bird” and “Winter.” The narrator is Ned Hall, who reviews the adventure of his childhood and adolescence from the perspective of his 35th year and the brink of fatherhood. But first he looks backward to a time before his own birth, just after the end of World War II, and reconstructs the events of his father's return home after three years of service overseas. Stunned by the miracle of his survival, Sam Hall quickly impregnates his wife, Jenny, and sets out to celebrate not simply his country's victory but life itself. It's not surprising that the celebration, an extended orgy of drinking, gambling and whoring, causes a serious rift between the Halls.
Ned tells us, with considerable irony, that his father's first view of him “must have been a tender moment.” In truth, Sam plays stud poker throughout his wife's labor and has to be forced at gunpoint by his father-in-law to greet his newborn son. And even then he parries for control: “I'll just have a peek at this last card,” my father said. “Then we'll go.”
Six months later, Jenny's father (and only champion) is dead, and she has filed for a divorce. But Sam, who candidly admits that he doesn't love her, refuses to grant her one. For good measure, he beats up F. William Peterson, the lawyer who dares to represent her in the matter. Sam's behavior on most occasions is just as outrageously perverse. He virtually abandons his son for the first six years of the boy's life and then matter-of-factly reappears and asserts his parental claim. That event marks the end of Ned's innocence and the beginning of the experiences that will shape his maturity.
To Sam Hall, lying, gambling and cheating are viable alternatives to responsible citizenry. He has no use for conventional behavior and lives by his own reckless rules, a system that keeps him at the bottom of the car insurance risk pool (hence the title of the book). While Ned is treated with rough affection by Sam, he observes with fascinated horror his father's sadistic badgering of Drew Littler, the teenage son of Sam's girlfriend, Eileen, and his offhand treatment of Eileen herself.
Cuffing Ned lightly on the head, Sam repeatedly asks the boy “So?” and “Well?,” questions that should be rhetorical but aren't. Sam insists on answers and explanations, although he provides very few of them himself. Yet it is Russo's substantial triumph that Sam Hall emerges as a thoroughly whole and memorable character, one who strongly engages his son's and the reader's sympathies and affection.
Jenny Hall, on the other hand, is not nearly so well-defined or complex. At the beginning of the novel, she seems gutsy if ineffectual—shooting at Sam's car in an attempt to keep him away, working at the telephone company and longing after distant places “where they capitalized the word Summer.” Then she becomes more fragile and defenseless, a woman who arouses the saviour complex in her priest and her lawyer, if not in her husband. As the novel progresses, she retreats further and further into herself, and out of our range of attention, until finally she becomes truly catatonic. While the various stresses of Jenny's life might explain such extreme withdrawal, it seems less an inevitability than an authorial device to get her out of the picture.
In the process of his coming of age, Ned shuttled back and forth between his father and his mother (who has been taken up permanently by the gallant and indefatigable F. William Peterson). The dust-jacket copy describes an “emotional tug of war” between Ned's parents for their son's loyalty, but there is really no contest. One of Sam's cronies consistently refers to Ned as “Sam's Kid,” and that's precisely who he is.
The story belongs to Ned and his father; it concentrates on the boy's efforts to understand Sam, and failing that, to earn and keep his love. Jenny's sporadic appearances only serve as a distraction from that central, riveting theme. Despite the seeming drama of her nervous breakdown and ultimate recovery, she remains a vague and shadowy figure. In fact, none of the female characters are as vividly realized as the men—except for Ned's grown-up love, Leigh, who appears only briefly toward the end of the book.
That disparity may be intentional; Mohawk, with its closed-down tanneries and leather mills, its saloons and poolrooms where the men gather to drink and banter and wait out their idle days, is a man's grim world—the world that Ned either must accept or reject. The young boy, bedazzled by his induction into male society, might have only a fuzzy, romantic vision of the women around him. But I think that the grown Ned probably would view them, retrospectively, in fuller dimension.
However, that is the only disappointment in an otherwise very satisfying book. There are wonderful scenes in The Risk Pool, especially those in which the sensitive and impressionable Ned is introduced to the mysteries of adult life. Russo writes with genuine passion and authority; his ear for dialogue is so acute that one can almost hear the characters speaking.
The primary suspense of the novel lies in the choices Ned will make for his own life; and, in the end, Sam Hall exerts a powerful influence on his son's future. But it is the influence of his unconditional love, rather than the example of his own shady, desperate life, that does the job.
SOURCE: McConkey, James. “Life with Father and Son.” Washington Post Book World 18, no. 48 (27 November 1988): 7.
[In the following review, McConkey argues that the “great triumph” of The Risk Pool lies in the novel's complex father-son relationship.]
Richard Russo's second novel returns us to the locale of his first, Mohawk (1986)—Mohawk being the name he gives that northern New York town peopled with characters of his imagination but apparently based on the actual Gloversville.
The Risk Pool is less a sequel than a palimpsest of that highly praised first novel. The two books chronicle much of the same time span, and a number of the minor characters from the first reappear in the second. While the two major characters of The Risk Pool are new to it, the reader can catch in their depiction certain glimmerings of their origin in the earlier work. Ned Hall, the first person narrator of The Risk Pool, emerges from Randall Younger, the central character of the earlier, third-person narrative; and Sam Hall is a striking development of the less life-celebratory Dallas Younger, Randall's father.
I admire Mohawk, but not its manufactured resolution in a melodramatic storm and hospital fire. Russo avoids such a flaw in The Risk Pool—though the novel is even more ambitious. It is both the traditional development novel of an artist (Ned, the narrator, may end up an editor but he is, after all, the supposed teller of the tale) and the trajectory of the life of another who seems quite unlike him—Ned's own father, a road construction worker and habitué of the local bars.
Ned has to grow through a conventional American misapprehension (the romanticizing of wealth into a spiritual ideal) as part of his maturation. Indeed, the mold from which he has to extricate himself was shaped by one of the most American of all novels, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Gatsby's romantic yearning for the green light across the bay becomes Ned's infatuation with the distant great house, gleaming like a jewel in the sun, that overlooks Mohawk from its hilltop location. Here the members of the wealthiest family in the community live, including the daughter to whom Ned inevitably will be attracted. The wake at the house for that daughter's father is a social gathering reminiscent of one of Gatsby's parties.
Ned's desire for the girl deserts him upon the sexual consummation. When illusion goes, what is left? Ned suffers all the uncertainties of our relativistic age, and as a consequence is far too passive to be interesting in himself. He spends much more of his growing-up with his mother than with his father, but she (despite or because of mental illness) remains a vaguely-realized figure. Contributing to Ned's inability to act is a hang-up about genetic inheritance which causes him to worry that any offspring, however delightful in youth, will age into a duplicate of the usually disliked parent of the same sex—a seeming obsession from which the author doesn't dissociate himself, suggesting that for him it may simply be a biological truth.
The great triumph of the novel—its depiction of Sam Hall's life—is a working out of this particular obsession or genetic fact through an almost subterranean acceptance of it. For author and reader alike, Ned only truly lives through the father he depicts. As Ned presents it, Sam's trajectory is completely believable—from his days of generosity and strength, of brawlings and self-confidence, through his period of inevitable decline. He suffers from alcoholism and loneliness as well as the cancer that will kill him, and the pride he once felt in himself becomes a pride in his son. (As son merges into father in the telling of this story, so father merges into son at its conclusion.) What gives suspense to Sam's story is not an Oedipal conflict between father and son (the mother, after all, barely exists) but a kind of transference of such a conflict to Sam and the young tough he contemptuously calls “Zero,” the iron-pumping and motorcycle-riding son of one of his female friends. If Sam again and again taunts and overpowers Zero, we know that eventually the roles will be reversed.
Ned may fade from our minds upon finishing the book, but not the characterization of Sam that Russo permits him. It's hard to resist a man who tells his son, following a struggle—with a berserk Zero—that results in a broken finger and the destruction of much of his apartment. “Things get bad sometimes. … It's nothing to worry about. It doesn't mean a thing. … If it meant something, it'd be different,” and who then reflectively adds, “But it's just how things are.”
Cooper, Rand Richards. “Bitter Harvests.” New York Times Book Review (14 July 2002): 10.
Cooper notes the significantly darker tone of Russo's short stories in The Whore's Child and Other Stories.
Gussow, Mel. “Writing a Novel in the Deli, Making Revisions in the Bar.” New York Times (29 August 2001): E1.
Gussow provides an overview of Russo's life and career upon the publication of Empire Falls.
Hemley, Robin. “The Howls of Ivy: Richard Russo's Funny but Sad Tale of a Professor with a Pack of Problems.” Chicago Tribune Books (3 August 1997): 3.
Hemley lauds Russo's “rollicking” satire of academia in Straight Man.
Kakutani, Michiko. “Books of the Times.” New York Times (15 October 1986): C24.
Kakutani praises Russo's overall accomplishment with Mohawk, but criticizes the novel for components of melodrama and caricature.
Maslin, Janet. “A Sly Grace for Harrowing Situations.” New York Times (8 July 2002): E8.
Maslin evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of The Whore's Child and Other Stories.
Prose, Francine. “Small-Town Smart-Alecks.” New York Times Book Review (20 June 1993): 13.
Prose offers a generally favorable review of Nobody's Fool, but faults the novel for its excessive length and a tendency toward sentimentality.
Roberts, Rex. Review of Empire Falls, by Richard Russo. Insight on the News 17, no. 30 (13 August 2001): 25.
Roberts compliments Empire Falls as “a delightful novel that manages to be funny and horrific by turns.”
Russo, Richard, and Lewis Burke Frumkes. “A Conversation with Richard Russo.” Writer 113, no. 12 (December 2000): 19.
Russo discusses Straight Man, his early writing and literary interests, and his approach to creative writing.
Sullivan, Jack. “‘Things Get Bad,’ Says Dad.” New York Times Book Review (18 December 1988): 14.
Sullivan offers a positive assessment of The Risk Pool.
Yardley, Jonathan. “Academic Shenanigans.” Washington Post Book World 27, no. 29 (20 July 1997): 3.
Yardley argues that Straight Man is a seriously flawed but enjoyable novel.
Additional coverage of Russo's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 12; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 127, 133; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 87, 114; and Literature Resource Center.
SOURCE: Abel, Betty. “Quarterly Fiction Review.” Contemporary Review 254, no. 1479 (April 1989): 213-16.
[In the following excerpt, Abel offers a positive assessment of The Risk Pool, calling Russo's prose “witty, easy and nostalgic in tone.”]
Richard Russo's novel The Risk Pool, is another American work that has crossed the Atlantic with every chance of success. Russo achieved fame first with his book entitled Mohawk, a moving love story set in an imaginary New York town. In The Risk Pool Richard Russo returns to Mohawk to unfold the further tale of thirty years in the hell-raising life of Sam Hall. Hall returns from World War II, only to abandon his wife Jenny and their baby Ned. Several years later, he returns in search of his son, thus causing Ned to spend the next twenty years shuttling both physically and emotionally between his estranged parents, trying hard to gain acceptance from his father as earnestly as the father is trying to win the respect and affection of the son he left too early for reconciliation to be achieved without a bitter struggle.
The style is witty, easy and nostalgic in tone so that the characters in the story are real and recognisable. Small-town America is depicted vividly and precisely. The eternal loser, Sam Hall, is an unsuccessful gambler, a heavy drinker and a disastrous driver. Nevertheless, he is inexplicably some sort of local hero and although he is laid off work every winter when he spends his time in bars, telling everyone that but for the winters he would be Governor, they respect his ready generosity and inability to bear a grudge. The whole novel seems to consist of the trials of failed fathers and unappreciative sons. But Sam Hall finds it especially hard to justify to his son that his disregard for all tenets of safety, decency and even common sense have landed him at the bottom of the auto-insurance risk pool. The author brings humour and pathos out of this sad tale.
SOURCE: Clute, John. “Talk of the Town.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4497 (9-15 June 1989): 634.
[In the following review, Clute asserts that Russo's themes in The Risk Pool are ultimately rewarding though the narrative can be meandering and overlong.]
Those who finish The Risk Pool will fully earn any pleasures Richard Russo may have to offer in this, his second novel about life in the small decaying industrial city of Mohawk, sunk in its worn-down valley some miles upriver from Albany, New York. Russo is not an author to worry about inflicting longueurs on his readers, and in Ned Hall he has found an ideal protagonist for the relentless amplitude of his way with a story. Ned has a ghost to lay—his memories of growing up with a hard-drinking scallywag father—and the great length of The Risk Pool neatly exemplifies the compulsiveness of his need to make sense of things.
There is, in fact, not a great deal to discover; what Ned clearly needs is to find out and reiterate certain truths about himself and his family, again and again, until repetition, and the deaths of most of the cast, can free him from the trammels of his upbringing. Sam Hall comes back home from combat in 1945 and makes his wife Jenny pregnant, but soon flees her obdurate and dispiriting fantasies of domesticity. After she has a mental breakdown, the child Ned goes to live with Sam, spending a couple of years in pool-halls, bars and corner grills. Sam is a drinker, a flamboyant raconteur, a scrounger generous with money, a hard man secretly proud of the reticent son who witnesses his life. Though Ned eventually returns to his mother and her fragile delusions, he never abandons Sam, who is the spark and hearth of his mental world, and he writes The Risk Pool to authenticate that bond.
Unfortunately, Ned himself is more sponge than protagonist, and great swathes of The Risk Pool serve only to feed his insatiable need for material, however desultory. Some of the vignettes and anecdotes he recounts are of considerable intrinsic merit, and almost every member of the cast comes startlingly alive, now and then—particularly Drew Littler, the huge, stertorous and deranged son of Sam's best woman friend, and Wusso, a large wise man with black blood and a genius for repartee.
Ned Hall is not unlike the Archer of Ross Macdonald's great series of American thrillers. Both Ned and Archer haunt their worlds like anthropologists—at one point Ned actually pretends to his mother that he has returned home on a university assignment to study Mohawk as a “primitive society”—but Archer's world has secrets to award to the stalker of lives; Ned's has not. There are hints of crimes, and of a violent death occasioned by one of Drew's juggernaut manias; these hints do not reach the surface. The risk pool—a term which describes the kind of insurance shelter available to high-risk drivers like Sam, at swingeing cost—keeps its secrets and its derelicts covered.
SOURCE: Proulx, E. Annie. “What It Takes to Endure the Lost, Stubborn Citizens of Richard Russo's Upstate New York.” Chicago Tribune Books (30 May 1993): 1.
[In the following review, Proulx lauds Russo's comedic prose in Nobody's Fool, noting Russo's recurring examination of child-parent relationships.]
If ever time travel is invented, let Richard Russo be first through the machine to bring back a true account. No one writing today catches the detail of life with such stunning accuracy.
Russo's third novel, Nobody's Fool, is a rude, comic, harsh, galloping story of four generations of small-town losers, the best literary portrait of the backwater burg since “Main Street.” Here is a masterly use of the wisecrack, the minor inflection, the between-the-lines meaning. Heavy messages hang under small-talk like keels under boats. Russo's pointillist technique makes his characters astonishingly real, and gradually the tiny events and details coalesce, build up in meaning and awaken in the reader a desire to climb into the page and ask for a beer.
The setting for Nobody's Fool, as for Russo's two critically acclaimed earlier novels, Mohawk (1986), and The Risk Pool (1988), is upstate New York. The depressed town of Bath is any of a thousand other towns past their best days; a sag in the landscape with high unemployment, a greasy spoon, a few bars, a bank, an auto-parts-and-used-car lot. To Clive Peoples Sr., the long-dead coach and driver-ed instructor who lurches through the story like Quasimodo in a letter sweater “… everything in the world was represented, somehow, right where they lived,” and this is how Russo plays the card.
Small towns disgorge the talented and able. Russo writes of the ones who stay behind, caught in invisible economic nets like gasping fish, parceling out the few jobs and mates among each other and trading both around from time to time. No one has any money, and if some windfall drops from the lottery, poker or horse tree, it is just luck, and the money, like the luck, is evanescent.
The story revolves around Sully, regarded by most Bath residents as nobody's fool. The 60-year-old son of Big Jim, a long-dead brutal drunkard, Sully cannot get over being his father's son. Every time he passes the cemetery he throws his father the finger, lets the house he has inherited from him fall into ruin as a fine filial insult. Big Jim's most sickening deed—which keeps bobbing up in the story like a corpse in a river—was to cause a young boy's impalement on a fence, then, through con-artist blather, persuade the horrified townspeople that he was the victim, in danger of losing his employment for just doing his job.
Sully has a hugely swollen injured knee but takes pleasure in defying pain. We start to know him when single-handedly, without the aid of his dim-witted, reeking friend Rub Squeers, he loads concrete blocks onto his beat-up truck. Withstanding affliction—even seeking it out—counts for much with Sully. The overloaded truck sinks into the mud and Sully has to hitchhike home as housewives driving grocery-laden station wagons pass him by:
These housewives … concluded, despite the fact that there was no prison within a hundred-mile radius, that the man must be an escaped convict, a murderer surely, who had spent the night in the marsh to escape the dogs. Either that or he was a premature burial from the nearby cemetery who had clawed his way out of his casket and up through the black earth and into the air. Where most hitchhikers at least attempted to look friendly, or failing that, pitiful, this one looked just plain dangerous. Something about the way he held out his thumb suggested that the fist attached to it might contain a live grenade.
Although Sully, “… a lonely, stubborn, unlucky man,” seems always “… looking for a car to hit head on,” he is also irreverent, tough, companionably close to his bad luck and—the other side of the gambling coin—often fired with unwarranted optimism; he has grit and awesome stamina, a sense of humour, a sense of self. His main virtue is his ability to endure, to ride through disaster on wry wit. If, by some peculiar shake of Fate's dice, there is no helping of broken glass on his plate, he is not beyond smashing some up.
The story is peopled with a sideshow of memorable characters: the druggist who dispenses experimental painkillers from his glove compartment; the father-in-law with the breathing problem, something of a fixture in Russoland; lucky Carl Roebuck who doesn't see that his money, beautiful wife and golden touch is nothing but a prolonged roll of the cosmic dice; a hot and cold priest duo; a punch-up tyke; Sully's occasional lover, the long-suffering Ruth, whose timing is always off; the abrasive and abusive Janey (Ruth says she's Sully's daughter) and her idiot-savant kid; and the alternating Greek choruses of all-night poker players, bartenders and short-order cooks. Smart old Beryl Peoples, for 40 years a teacher, is the cement of the story. At 80 she is an authority on human nature, the voice of reason in this tilted pinball game view of life.
In all of Russo's novels his creative territory is staked out around the primary human relationship—child and parent. In Nobody's Fool these complex and painful connections never mature and never end, not with age, not even with death; and he shows us again and again that the seed of the adult is in the child. Most of the children are in their 60s with children and grandchildren of their own, and their parents are in their 80s and 90s or dead. The grating antipathies are never resolved.
We shift back and forth from Sully and his dead father to Sully's own unloved son Peter, a failed university teacher who doesn't understand the nature of luck, and Peter's sons, timorous Will and the little bully, Wacker. Cass of Hattie's Lunch, hates and wishes her mother would die so she can move out west and start being happy. But when the old woman is killed by the cash register she loves, Cass staggers with displacement. Beryl Peoples has always liked Sully more than her own resentful and hungering son Clive Jr., who is almost 60 before he gets a taste of the wild honey, and then only by absconding with bank funds, driving a Lincoln with a broken axle, taunting a cop and thinking, as he veers loosely over high-speed roads, “… that he was neither in nor out of control” and reflecting that at last this “… was what it felt like to be Sully.”
The relationships between men and women in Nobody's Fool are as flawed as those between children and parents. It is not only the absence of love (never there, burned out or distorted) that tortures but also the burden of too much love: Sully's ex-wife, who sobs in his arms that she hates him, pesters and whips her father and her son with her fretful affection. Only with the fourth generation, Sully's timid and frail grandson, Will, does there seem a chance that 60 years of neglect-fired hate may shift into a different gear.
Russo's interest in affliction and suffering invites comparison of his work with that of Russell Banks and Andre Dubus, though Russo capers away, with self-biting humor, from resolutions of atonement, redemption or expiation. In Nobody's Fool the random hand of chance is everything, and the best that can be hoped for in the end is a shift in luck. It's all crazy, anyway. No one can tell which way the needle will jump. A brief exchange between Sully and his dying lawyer, Abraham Wirfly, gives us a glimpse of the direction.
“Now tell me. What'd Barton want with you this morning?”
Sully snorted. “He wanted to know about the day my old man spiked that kid on the fence.”
Wirf nodded thoughtfully. “… What'd you tell him?”
“Nothing,” Sully said. “That it was an accident.”
“Which was a lie. He shook the fence until the kid lost his grip and fell.”
“You saw him?”
“My brother did,” Sully grinned. “All I saw was the kid hanging there by his jaw with the spike sticking out of his mouth.”
Wirf took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “It's a wonder we aren't all insane.”
“We are,” Sully said, getting up from his stool. His conviction surprised him. “I believe that.”
After the last sentence is read and the book put away, the reader continues to see Russo's tender, messed-up people coming out of doorways, getting into cars, lurching through life. And keeps on seeing them because they are as real as we are.
SOURCE: Mosher, Howard Frank. “The Strife of Bath.” Washington Post Book World 23, no. 23 (6 June 1993): 8.
[In the following review, Mosher praises Russo's deft portrayal of small-town American life in Nobody's Fool, arguing that the novel contains “some of the most darkly yet genuinely funny scenes I've encountered in any recent fiction.”]
“This town will never change,” the proprietor of Hattie's Diner bleakly observes of the decayed old Adirondack resort village of Bath, toward the end of Richard Russo's superb new novel [Nobody's Fool]. On the surface, at least, this assessment seems irrefutable. After all, the mineral springs from which Bath originally took its name ran dry back in 1818; and the village has been tending toward obscurity ever since. Even the lovely old wineglass elms along Upper Main Street in front of Mrs. Beryl People's house are slowly dying, their blackening limbs a menace to the homes they once shaded.
Still, as Beryl's upstairs tenant, the aging jack-of-all-trades Donald “Sully” Sullivan, discovers, everything in the realm of human affairs even in Bath—is mutable. For starters, the town itself seems about to undergo a miraculous economic renaissance. The dilapidated resort hotel, the Sans Souci, is scheduled to reopen soon. Beryl People's banker son Clive (“The Bank,” as Sully facetiously calls him) is scheming night and day to attract out-of-state backing for a huge theme park, “The Ultimate Escape.” And Sully's own comfortable, longtime living arrangements above Mrs. Peoples are being threatened by the interfering Clive, who's afraid that Sully will burn down Beryl's home with a carelessly unextinguished cigarette—as, indeed, he did his previous landlord's place.
First, though, who exactly is Donald Sullivan? To his 80-year-old landlady (and ex-teacher), he's both a great favorite and a perennial disappointment. “Throughout his life a case study underachiever, Sully … was nobody's fool, a phrase that Sully no doubt appreciated without ever sensing its literal application—that at sixty, he was divorced from his own wife, carrying on halfheartedly with another man's, estranged from his son, devoid of self-knowledge, badly crippled and virtually unemployable—all of which he stubbornly confused with independence.”
Then, out of the blue, Sully's aloof grown son Peter, a college professor, shows up with his own son, Will, a shy, nervous boy whom Sully takes under his wing and nurtures, as he never did Peter. At the same time, Sully's off-again, on-again love affair with his long-time girlfriend, Ruth, seems to be lurching toward an unhappy conclusion. And he drops out of the local community college he's been attending to go back to construction work, despite a badly injured knee that has become “a symphony of pain.”
Worst of all, the forbidding memory of Sully's abusive father, the savage barroom brawler Big Jim Sullivan (who most prided himself that “he's lived a man's life and made a man's mistakes”), has been haunting Sully more and more frequently.
“Sully, Sully, Sully,” his friends say regularly throughout this character-driven novel, in affectionate exasperation with Russo's heedless, chronically forgetful, spontaneously generous and entirely believable hero, for whom “the deepest of life's mysteries [are] the mysteries of his own behavior.”
Nobody's Fool also presents us with a brilliant ensemble of other townspeople, from the sharp-tongued, good-hearted Beryl Peoples to Sully's hilariously ingenuous helper, Rub Squeers. Along the way, Russo tells us everything we're dying to learn about this off-the-beaten-track village, from its obsessive annual preparation for the big basketball game with its cross-county rival, Schuyler Springs, to the ludicrously virulent columns of the local weekly paper, with its “often inebriated, always scooped editor.”
As a bonus, the novel contains some of the most darkly yet genuinely funny scenes I've encountered in any recent fiction. Among my favorites are the untoward death, in the line of duty, of Mrs. People's driver's-ed-teacher husband, Clive Sr.; a neighborhood rampage, conducted by Sully's ex-wife, to extirpate Playboy magazine from the old home of her revered schoolteacher-father; an all-afternoon poker game in which Bath's chief of police loses his revolver and a nubile newcomer to town literally loses her shirt; and Sully's own sojourn in jail, over the Christmas holidays, for driving his truck down the sidewalk of Upper Main and punching the obnoxious local cop who stops him at gunpoint.
Is Donald Sullivan, for all his intelligence, capable of change? Without giving away the wonderful surprises at the end of the novel, I'll answer that question, which is central to the moral core of the story. Yes, he is—but only after coming to terms not just with his son and friends but, in a truly terrifying scene in an abandoned house long after midnight, with the belligerent specter of Big Jim Sullivan himself.
Self-knowledge, along with love in all its forms, from lifelong friendships to consuming sexual passions, is what this remarkably likable, beautifully written novel is all about. Like all the best fiction, it is ultimately a revelation of the human heart—which is, after all, the same in small towns and vast cities the world over.
SOURCE: Smith, Wendy. “Richard Russo: The Novelist Again Explores the Crucial Impact of Place on Individual Destinies.” Publishers Weekly 240, no. 23 (7 June 1993): 43-4.
[In the following essay, Smith provides an overview of Russo's fiction, publishing history, and literary concerns, including Russo's own comments on his career and work.]
The Old Port section of Portland, Maine, where Richard Russo takes PW [Publishers Weekly] to lunch, is not a place where the author's characters would feel at home. Although Portland suffered a postwar decline not unlike the one that befell Russo's fictional upstate New York town of Mohawk, Old Port has since been gussied up. Brick warehouses now hold craft shops and clothing stores; the quietly tasteful restaurants have nothing in common with the Mohawk Grill, that formica-countered mainstay of communal life in both Mohawk and The Risk Pool; and Sam Hall, feckless antihero of the latter novel, would look in vain for a tavern like The Elms, where he could park his son at the bar to eat peanuts while Sam ran up his tab.
North Bath, N.Y., the setting of Russo's new book, Nobody's Fool, just out from Random House, aspires to gentrification, but protagonist Donald Sullivan is less interested in the restored Sans Souci hotel than in making his regular rounds between Hattie's Lunch, the local OTB parlor and the White Horse Tavern. There isn't much in Old Port that would appeal to Sully.
His creator, on the other hand, quickly finds an excellent seafood restaurant and speaks enthusiastically of the summer festival that fills Old Port's streets with musicians and crowds. Russo left Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where he had been rapidly promoted as his first two novels were published, to take a position at Colby College in Waterville because he wanted to come back to New England. He is well aware that nowadays the alternative to gentrification too often is dying towns like the ones he portrays in his fiction.
Not that Russo is any kind of grim social realist. A short, sturdily built man of 44, he views the world and its absurdities with the same affectionate amusement he brings to bear on his characters' frequently reckless behavior. His explosive laugh erupts at regular intervals, and he sees his work as having “a kind of spiritual optimism. I don't necessarily hold out any great hope that people's lives are going to change, but I think there's great dignity and the possibility of spiritual progress in struggle. I don't subscribe to the shit happens and then you die' school of either fiction or life.”
He strongly believes, however, in the crucial impact of place on individual destinies, as can be seen in his decision to leave Mohawk and set Nobody's Fool in North Bath, a once-prosperous resort that hit hard times after its mineral springs ran dry in 1868 and now grinds its collective teeth enviously at the flourishing fortunes of nearby Schuyler Springs.
I needed a different kind of environment. There wasn't any sense in Mohawk of a greater day, a kind of mythical past which the inhabitants harked back to as a Golden Age. Also, I needed a rich relative right down the road in order to make comparisons and address the book's central issues of luck and free will and fate. Demographically, Mohawk wouldn't work.
Demographics, broadly defined, are important in all of Russo's novels, which resemble Victorian fiction in their precise location of action within a particular time and place. “Place is inseparable from character. If I try to write books about people before I have a pretty good sense of the places, that's an indication that I don't know the characters as well as I need to. And it's crucial to have a sense of place as process. Sully going to Hattie's first, then the OTB, then the Horse; the rhythms of his life are inseparable from who he is and what he thinks of himself. That comes from some of the real loves of my life in terms of literature, Dickens first and foremost: how do we know Pip in Great Expectations, except in terms of the forge, the blacksmith's shop and the marsh? Many of the contemporary writers I like also have that feeling of the ways in which places and people interact.”
Russo understands this interaction from personal experience. Dressed in jeans, a T-shirt, a dusty blue cotton jacket and a pair of olive-green Keds, he looks like a fairly typical junior faculty member, but his youth in the blue-collar town of Gloversville, N.Y., continues to shape his outlook. “Despite the fact that I have more degrees than anybody should, I've never really been able to shake my sense of being an interloper in the Colby Colleges of the world. The years when I was an undergraduate at the University of Arizona were mightily confusing, because I would be taking classes and living the life of the mind, but every summer I would work construction with my father to earn money. In order to continue in that world of educated people, I had to go back into this other world, where my grammar would change, the actual language that I would speak wasn't the same, the way of looking at things wasn't the same.
Most of the jobs my father had were backbreaking, brutal. The worst was a summer I spent as a grader, bent over spreading dirt along a highway and making it absolutely level. By the end of the day—talk about metaphors for the way you think of yourself and look at things!—it took forever just to straighten up. My life has become easier through education, but I know what real work is. That sense of these people and their lives trails behind me and is always a factor in my imagination. As a younger man, I equated success with putting that world behind me. In terms of my writing, in terms of my heart, it took me a long time to discover it meant more than anything else.
The first draft of Mohawk helped Russo find his subject matter. Always an avid reader, he was almost finished with his Ph.D. in American literature by the time he realized he wanted to create novels as well as study them. After writing some short stories and an aborted novel, he produced a 500-page manuscript about Anne Younger, who later evolved into one of many characters in Mohawk but in this draft was its embittered heroine, living in the Southwest.
“The novel was floundering; the only parts of it that were alive at all were the flashbacks in Mohawk, the town she had left.” When a friend read the manuscript and observed that all of the interesting parts of the book were in the past, “his comments made crushing sense. Of course, it involved throwing out everything except 75 pages, admitting that I'd written a bad book and going back and writing a better one.”
Nat Sobel, who had admired Russo's stories in various literary magazines, took on Mohawk and has been the author's agent ever since. “He continues to get most of his clients by reading literary magazines and doing the kind of work in the trenches that not many literary agents are willing to do. What I like about working with Nat is that we don't draw hard and fast lines between what he does and what I do: I trust his aesthetic judgment as well as his business judgment; he isn't always putting the dollar sign first as we think about my career.”
Sobel sold Mohawk to Gary Fisketjon at Vintage Contemporaries, in the mid-1980s a white-hot publisher of bestselling, critically praised paperback originals. “My initial reaction was that being in paperback first diminished me, but Nat explained that I ought to be damn well thrilled, given the other authors in the series; I was going to breeze along on Raymond Carver's coattails! It couldn't have been a better thing to do. They had a 35,000 first printing; if I had gone to Random House in hardcover, I would have been lucky to get 6000, and there probably would have been no paperback.”
When Fisketjon left Vintage for Atlantic Monthly Press shortly before Mohawk was released in 1986, Russo was faced with a difficult decision about what to do with his next novel. “Gary did an incredible job of editing Mohawk. It had a lot of first-novel difficulties, and he really improved it. But I tremendously liked David Rosenthal [whom Random House proposed as Russo's new editor], and there was already a group of people who were devoted to me and my work. The sales force has always been wonderful, and when they decide as they have done with me that they're really behind your work, you'd be a damn fool to think about joining another publisher.”
Russo's relationship with Rosenthal, who published The Risk Pool in hardcover in 1988, has proved to be quite different from the one he had with Fisketjon. “David is less of a blue pencil editor than Gary was. At a couple of crucial stages in Nobody's Fool we've gotten together and just talked; he hasn't been sitting down with the manuscript and writing things in the margin, but rather, offering spiritual guidance and thoughts on the content. The same was true of The Risk Pool. As a result of what Gary did on Mohawk, which badly needed it, I learned so much and became so much more relentless in the revision process that The Risk Pool didn't require as much close sentence-to-sentence attention.”
Written while his father was dying and based largely on their relationship, The Risk Pool is the most personal of Russo's novels, a fact reflected in the first-person narration by Sam Hall's son Ned. “It has just as wide a canvas as my other books—wider, in terms of time, because it takes place over 30 years, while Nobody's Fool takes place over two months—but everything was filtered through the very narrow focus of Ned's camera. Nobody's Fool has a wide-angle lens; we're never inside any of the characters looking out, we're always outside looking in.”
That wide-angle focus is what Russo loves in 19th-century novels, which he points to as the strongest influence on his own work “because of their ambition, their wanting to see more of the world, their desire not just to look at the interior workings of a single character and situation. Kafka's Metamorphosis is a classic of that second kind, and the shape of literature has not been quite the same since it was written. But all writers have books they would like to have written and other books that, despite their greatness, are not ones they themselves would have wanted to write. I admire Metamorphosis, but if the great books were up for grabs, I would prefer to have written Middlemarch! Some writers want to go deeper and deeper, while others strive for breadth. Breadth is more appealing to me.”
Getting that breadth in Nobody's Fool turned out to be an agonizing process. “The Risk Pool was a gift,” says Russo. “Exactly what the book was about was clear to me from the beginning, and I never made any big mistakes. Nobody's Fool was excruciating. I started it in Sully's voice and wrote hundreds of pages before I found that his point of view was too limiting. I wrote a second draft as a series of narrations through various characters' eyes, then I had to throw that away when I realized this was an omniscient book; I needed to be outside all the characters with access to their thoughts.”
Random House thinks highly enough of the resulting canvas to send the author on a month-long publicity tour across the States; in July, he'll spend a week in England promoting the British edition. Pleased as always by his publisher's enthusiastic backing, Russo isn't looking forward to being separated from his wife and two daughters; he's also got a thorny, which-book-next? problem to solve. Some 200 pages into “an academic comedy,” he feels the pull of “a darker book that may be a Mohawk book” and that might yet elbow its way onto his desk to become his current project.
One thing he tries not to worry about is the fear of repeating himself that led to some disagreements with Random House about promotional copy Russo felt overstressed similarities between The Risk Pool and Nobody's Fool. “My editor and agent have convinced me that I was overly concerned with falling into a rut, of forever writing father-son stories set in upstate New York. Like every writer, I'm afraid of being pigeonholed, but I'm trying to balance that fear with a willingness to look at my career and say that already the books I've written suggest that certain things are important to me, and I probably ought not to be all that interested in forsaking them for the sake of novelty. It took me a while,” he adds with a laugh, “to realize it was okay to write books that feel like Russo novels!”
SOURCE: Caldwell, Gail. “The Last Resort.” Boston Globe (27 June 1993): 94, 96.
[In the following review of Nobody's Fool, Caldwell praises Russo's narrative skill and literary vision but finds the novel excessively lengthy and repetitious.]
With his infinite winters and unreflective townfolk, Richard Russo is a master craftsman at broken-pipe realism. He has an anachronistic fondness for sprawling, ordinary life, and his characters are etched large by this grainy intimacy—by the close-focus detail of work endured, love lost, another day gone the way of cruel oblivion. All three of his novels are set in half-defeated hamlets in upstate New York, where foreclosure signs on the main drag compete with old cafes and run-down Victorians. The blue-collar heartache at the center of Russo's fiction has the sheen of Dickens but the epic levity of John Irving; this is a writer whose affection for his characters dominates his every page. By the time his narrative escapades are over, half the cast seems as familiar as the neighborhood bowling alley.
The subject of class is one of the great unmined territories of contemporary fiction; with the exception of Russell Banks (and with the death of Raymond Carver), few nonminority American writers tend to look much further than the outer limit on their VISA cards. In his earlier novels, Mohawk and The Risk Pool, as well as the garrulous Nobody's Fool, Russo is entrenched in the workaday reality of a struggling rural population, from their flickering dreams to the way they put their boots on in the morning. His characters are often as outlandish as they are poignant, and that dexterity of texture is what makes for such a fully realized fictional world.
But regardless of his comic reach, there are always ghosts on the loose in Russo's lonely towns—traces of memory or regret, of a child's sorrow or a father's rage. These misty presences roam the pool halls and betting parlors where men go to get warm, and they provide the central tension of what otherwise might be merely picaresque. In Nobody's Fool, the dominant game of shadow-boxing is between 60-year-old Donald Sullivan, “Sully” to everyone who knows him, and his father, Big Jim, who's been dead for five years. Between the son's wiseacre foibles and the father's violence lie half the secrets of Bath, N.Y.
A hand-to-mouth construction worker with a mangled knee, Sully is the town's endearing rogue and the star player of Nobody's Fool—a man who seems responsible for much of the trouble in Bath along with most of its goodness. It's now 1984, but luck left the place more than a century ago, when the town's mineral waters ran dry and wealthy tourists took their money down the road to Schuyler Springs. Folks are still waiting for the winds of change. They gather in Hattie's Cafe or the White Horse Tavern, ragging each other and carrying on affairs and promising themselves a better day. Their ungrateful kids and thankless jobs greet them every morning, along with the black-branched elm trees on Main Street that droop more ominously each year.
Bath and its inhabitants, in other words, seem governed by “some cruel law of subtraction”—as though the very life force that binds them together is leaking away. With his prideful lack of emotional attachments and material possessions, Sully is the personification of this gradual loss; in keeping with the title of the novel, he's beholden to the idea that no one needs him and thus no one can hurt him. In this regard, Nobody's Fool puts a realist's spin on It's a Wonderful Life: What happens if you think your life doesn't matter to other people, but you stick around to make sure?
Sully can thank his bullying father for such fierce autonomy, and he inflicts it on everyone who cares for him, from his snooty, academic son, Peter (who didn't get tenure), to his slow-as-molasses sidekick, Rub (who bears every insult Sully delivers). The action of Nobody's Fool takes place over several weeks around Christmas, and this microcosmic span allows the development of an extraordinary panoply of characters. Most formidable is Sully's tiny landlady, Miss Beryl Peoples, who taught eighth-grade English for four decades, thereby terrifying half the town of Bath (she still does). Widowed for years, Miss Beryl talks each day to a photograph of her husband, Clive Sr.—and then weighs his advice against the counsel of Ed, an African mask who hangs in the living room and tells her whatever she wants to hear.
Along with her rich inner life, Miss Beryl has a smarmy entrepreneurial son—“a study in self-importance”—who's raising money for a local theme park called the Ultimate Escape. (As president of the town's savings and loan, Clive Jr. is to Bath what Cliff Barnes was to “Dallas.”) But we wear the chains we forge in life, as Miss Beryl would say, and the weak links are all over Bath: Sully's ex-wife, Vera, who's about 2 inches shy of a total breakdown; his shady pharmacist, Jocko, who slips him pain-pill samples; his inebriated lawyer, Wirf, whose idea of legal counsel is writing ominous messages on damp cocktail napkins. Sully has the nefarious Carl Roebuck to provide him with under-the-table jobs and Ruth, his married girlfriend, to keep him honest; together, the entire ragged cast sustains itself with what is probably the crux of the novel—what Russo calls “the mystery of affection.”
As with his previous work, Nobody's Fool is a sad novel camouflaged in comedy; many of its characters, particularly Sully, are generously wrought. And Russo's eye for detail is splendid, from Miss Beryl's trivial revenge on her son's fiance to the quiet agony of a holiday dinner. But the same indulgence that allows Sully to get away with murder is what gets his creator into trouble. Nobody's Fool has a few slipshod or badly realized characters; two women seem especially ill-conceived, and a little girl's misery is never explained. And the novel is too long-winded: Russo's tendency toward repetitive vignette—Wirf at the bar, Rub on the job, Sully mouthing off—has the problematic effect of diluting what is best about the book. It's like staying too long at a family reunion. You were thrilled to see your uncle when you got there, but by twilight, the jokes are starting to wear thin.
This is unfortunate, because Russo is a born storyteller. Some of the weaknesses and irritations of Nobody's Fool might have been avoided with distance; surely Russo knows that not every death in a novel can be turned into comic error, and that the resolutions at the close of his story were easily predictable 100 pages back. If he'd spent more time on Sully's inner life (doesn't he have one, really?) and less on his ironic repartee, Nobody's Fool wouldn't have risked sounding like a player piano by its end.
But I appreciate Richard Russo's spirit: It is not a popular thing these days to write a big, rambunctious novel that has as its central motif an entire town. With its endless riffs and unstoppable human hopefulness, Nobody's Fool delivers a sepia-toned portrait—of a place in America most people didn't even know was there.
SOURCE: Kaveney, Roz. “Bonds Men.” New Statesman and Society 6, no. 263 (30 July 1993): 39-40.
[In the following review, Kaveney commends Russo's “ear for social ritual and the comedy that goes with it” in Nobody's Fool but laments the novel's occasionally stereotypical characterizations.]
Early in this likeable, if blokeish, novel of American small-town life, [Nobody's Fool,] crippled reprobate Sully fails to recognise the source of the quotation (“We wear the chains we forge in life”) of which his former English teacher—Miss Beryl, now his landlady—is so fond. Since Russo makes a point of highlighting it at the beginning and end of the novel, we should pay attention. The alert reader may recognise it as coming from A Christmas Carol; since Russo's novel runs from Thanksgiving to New Year, we may take it that what is enacted here is as much a fairy-tale of redemption as dirty realism.
Russo is obsessed with macho middle-aged headbangers; Sully is nicer than Sam Hall, the father in The Risk Pool, more sensitive about other people's feelings and less compulsive about the more obvious forms of self-destruction. Like Sam, he has been estranged from his son; this novel, like its predecessor, is a myth of father-son reconciliation and its opposite. Sully's inability to forgive his father and brother, his shadow doubles, cripples him almost as much as his bad knee.
This is not just a book about men emoting at each other. Sully's relationship with Miss Beryl has elements of the sexual, but, like his mistress and the woman in whose diner he eats, she is fundamentally his surrogate mother. Crudely, it is when she abandons this role that she is nearly defrauded by her actual son, a crooked developer who, significantly, betrays the town. It is in accepting her kindness that Sully belatedly grows up. Sexual relationships prove difficult in this book—affairs and marriages end rather than begin—but there is always companionship.
Russo being the sort of writer he is, most of that companionship is the hearty friendship of men in diners and bars and places of work. Because he is good on the damage that his men do to their families and themselves, he can get away with the moments of grace and courage that keep their matey ethic viable. Male bonding gets analysed as well as celebrated; Sully's employer Carl is caustic about the unconsciously homoerotic component of the relationship between Sully and his dim sidekick Rub. And the teasing game of mutual defrauding played by Carl and Sully has elements of flirtation. Attractively, there is nothing reductive about any of this.
Nobody's Fool is a thoroughly peopled book, though a few too many of the characters are caricatures. Russo's ear for social ritual and the comedy that goes with it is a good one, even if he is too prone to derive comedy from the grotesque humiliations of age and health. It is perhaps excessive to include both death by a falling cash register and the loss of an artificial leg in a poker game. If Russo is trying to imitate Dickens, this can be a mixed blessing; but he has learned Dickens' principal lesson, which is that the novel can usefully be about a complex moral world.
SOURCE: Brzezinski, Steve. Review of Nobody's Fool, by Richard Russo. Antioch Review 52, no. 1 (winter 1994): 173-74.
[In the following review, Brzezinski commends the ambitious scope of the narrative in Nobody's Fool.]
Russo's third novel [Nobody's Fool] is an ambitious look at two topics currently out of favor in American literature: class and small-town America. Though the book is too long by at least 200 pages, it is peopled with extraordinarily well-drawn characters, most of them either poor and struggling or rich and bumbling, whose inevitable mistakes and missteps are chronicled in an excruciatingly comic yet deeply compassionate narrative. Russo's fictional setting of Bath, New York, is a town down on its luck, in slow decline since the interstate highway was built, too far from Albany to experience the economic windfall of suburban gentrification. Much of the plot surrounds the hilariously doomed attempt to restore the town's previous prosperity by convincing fast-buck financiers to build a theme park, The Ultimate Escape, in Bath. The reason the theme park is never built is that the money men ultimately decide that the Bath locals are simply too weird, and, if employed by the park, would scare off and otherwise disconcert the tourist trade.
Weird they are, and Russo's achievement is to invent a completely believable fictional landscape peopled with assorted charlatans, buffoons, and chronic underachievers, all of whom he succeeds in making us care passionately about through the sheer force of the narrative. His characters, like Samuel Beckett's, are inevitably falling down, but they always get up, only to fall down again. Russo would say it is not merely the getting up that makes people truly human, but the falling down as well. This dialectic between occasional triumph and inevitable catastrophe gives the book an unusual texture, both bleak and cheerful at the same time.
SOURCE: Montgomery, M. R. “The Brains behind Nobody's Fool.” Boston Globe (26 January 1995): 49, 52.
[In the following essay, Montgomery provides an overview of Russo's life, career, and literary concerns and discusses Russo's work on the film adaptation of Nobody's Fool.]
Richard Russo, novelist (three published to glowing reviews), educator (much-admired teacher of creative writing at Colby College) and seriously competitive racquetball player at the Waterville Downtown Athletic Club in Maine, is becoming a Famous Writer thanks to a movie. Thanks to the Paul Newman and Jessica Tandy movie, Nobody's Fool, now showing at your local theater and already the subject of Oscar rumors.
One of the burdens of fame is the interview and The Standard Question, which, if you write fiction, is about the similarity between the book and your own life. Recently, at WBZ-TV's cavernous studios on Soldiers Field Road, John Henning of The News at Noon asked The Question during a pre-show taping. It is a reasonable one, given that Russo has taught college English like Peter Sullivan (Dylan Walsh) in the movie, had a father who, like Donald “Sully” Sullivan (Paul Newman), the father of Peter and protagonist of Nobody's Fool, worked construction and deserted the family when Russo was a child, and who lived in upstate New York where the book is set.
The interview was swimming along under the television lights, a clip from the movie had been shown, the importance of Paul Newman had been acknowledged, when John Henning popped The Question, asking Russo if there was much similarity between him and Newman's son. Russo, and words are his business, was nonplused, flabbergasted and momentarily reduced to silence. The problem is, as Newman-watchers know, that Newman's only son, Scott, died of an overdose of pills and alcohol in 1978. And to an author, his characters are as real as any actor who plays them. “You mean Sully's son,” Russo finally realized. Cut, cancel, rewind the tape, start the interview over and, this time, avoid the autobiographical inquiry.
An hour later, while walking toward Harvard Square for a lunch and yet another interview, Russo remarked that there ought to be a constitutional amendment prohibiting questions about autobiography in fiction: “If I've been asked that once, I've been asked 10,000 times.”
FROM NOVEL TO FILM
Nobody's Fool, the novel, is a digressive, episodic, character-filled book of 547 pages. Turning it into a two-hour movie, short by today's matinee standards, was no easy task. “They made that decision early on,” Russo explained; “there are no car chases or murders, and they thought two hours was about right for people to spend sort of in the company of the characters.”
The original script by director Robert Benton was, Russo thought, “a fine, sound job.” But, a month into the filming (during the snowy winter of 1993-94, on location in upstate New York), small troubles began to appear. “They particularly started to worry about some of the bridges between the scenes Benton had pretty much borrowed directly from the novel. And they were filming out of sequence, that was the only way they could get Melanie Griffith and Bruce Willis [who play Toby and Carl Roebuck] involved, working around their schedules, and so they were working 14 hours a day and the director can't rewrite all night, so I'd get a call from Benton saying, ‘We rehearsed a scene all day and there's this problem.’
“So, we'd fax things back and forth,” Russo recalled. “When I did go down, Benton and Paul wanted to know even more about Sully than I had written, what else I imagined about him, his character, motivation. And there were some things completely missing from the movie, including Sully's relationship with Ruth [a book character who doesn't appear in the film]. Here's a character, as far as the script goes, who's been celibate for 30 years since his divorce. Paul was very interested in Sully's sexuality, how to show it. We even rewrote a scene, one in the diner, where the waitress has some verbal sexual byplay with Sully as if it were an ongoing relationship. But, when they looked at the whole movie, they didn't need it.”
Why, even on a cold, dark, December day in Beacon, N.Y., anyone would think Paul Newman might look like he'd been celibate for decades is a mystery, but that's Hollywood. It wasn't just Newman's fascination with Sully that let Russo know the novel was being taken seriously. When he saw Benton's sets, he got the message again. “I brought my family down [wife Barbara and two teenage daughters], and it happened to be the day they were shooting the strip-poker nude scene in the back room of the local saloon. Of course they keep everyone off the set who doesn't need to be there, so we waited out in the barroom. I thought it was a real bar. I was wondering how much they paid the owner to be shut down during the filming. It turns out it was an empty storefront made into a set. I thought they'd just take away the Hollywood stuff and it would be a barroom again.
“And Miss Beryl's house,” where Newman rents an upstairs flat from Jessica Tandy, “they had every single object in that house that was mentioned in the book. You remember in the novel Miss Beryl talks to Clive Sr., her dead husband, and to Driver Ed, the African mask on the wall. Well, talking to Driver Ed isn't in the movie, but the mask was on the wall,” he marveled.
THE WORLD OF WORK
There is, of course, to get back to The Question, an inevitable dose of autobiography in most fiction: Like Huckleberry Finn, Samuel Clemens did see a vicious fraternal bloody feud (although his was the Civil War itself) and he did, like Huck, “light out for the territories.” So, Russo has done his three novels set in upstate New York, and the next one, which he barely can bring himself to describe (“It won't sound right”) has a professor of English in it, and the setting this time is in Pennsylvania, a state where Russo, we are not surprised to learn, once taught English. Like Nobody's Fool, it is a novel that revolves around the world of work, in this case a department where the most administratively incompetent professor has been made chairman for a year while the search committee finds a new department head. “What he says in the novel,” Russo related with a grin, “is that they think they have put a harmless incompetent in charge, but they have no idea how much trouble he can cause when armed with a competent secretary, someone who knows how to fill out the right forms. That's sort of the idea of the novel.”
Work fascinates Russo, and has ever since he spent his summers between high school and college terms working with his father, constructing highways and bridges in New York State. The novelists he admires most have also been fascinated with work and occupation. One of them is Melville, whose Bartleby the Scrivener is purely a story that takes its themes and metaphors from employment and whose Moby Dick is infused with exacting descriptions of the details of whaling.
“Some of Larry McMurtry's best writing is about work,” Russo added. “Take Horseman Pass By, which is the movie Hud. What is it that Hud can't stand about his father? ‘Works me like a mule,’ that's what he says. And in Lonesome Dove, which may be the great American novel, the whole relationship between Captain Call and Augustus is set up by who works—Call—and who doesn't—Augustus.”
ON REWRITING WELL
And Russo flat-out enjoyed working on small revisions of the script of Nobody's Fool. He took enjoyment from the art of condensation and the opportunity to have a second go at some scenes. “There was one piece of rewriting,” he said, “that I wish I had thought of when I was writing the book. We had to condense the scene in the judge's chambers, the one where Sully and the policeman he slugged are in front of the judge who doesn't want it to go to trial.” The cop had fired a warning shot at Sully, who responded by cold-cocking him.
“‘A warning shot?’ the judge says in the movie. ‘All you warned was a little old lady two blocks away sitting on her commode.’ A great word, commode, I wish I'd thought of it earlier.”
Now just in his 40s, with a new novel under way, a Paul Newman movie credit (which puts him up there with McMurtry and Tennessee Williams, among others) and a good day job that pays the bills between royalty checks, Richard Russo has plenty of time to think of something.
SOURCE: Bradfield, Scott. “Department Wars.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4921 (25 July 1997): 23.
[In the following review, Bradfield judges Straight Man to be a humorous but flawed novel.]
Hank Devereaux, the protagonist of Richard Russo's funny and clever novel, [Straight Man,] is a professor of creative writing, hiding out in the below-par English Department of West Central Pennsylvania University, and he doesn't think he belongs anywhere better. About to turn fifty, he hasn't written a book in the twenty years since he received tenure, and he has been elected Department Chair solely because he is the sort of “militant procedural incompetent” who doesn't threaten to get anything done. In a department of losers, nobody wants to be left behind by somebody else's accomplishments. And, in an era of increasingly stringent budget cuts, accomplishing nothing is starting to look easier and easier.
Russo's portrait of the Department Wars in today's literary academy is sharp. First, there is the Old Guard, a lot of fifty-something professors who get along by doing as little as possible, and inventing reasons not to talk to one another. Then, there is the thin and stroppy Young Guard, which now consists solely of Campbell Wheemer, a specialist in French feminism, cultural studies, and postmodern American sitcoms, who is so afraid of being deemed “logocentric” that he avoids reading books whenever possible. Everybody is more concerned with establishing territories than in sharing knowledge.
As Department Chair, Devereaux cannot hire adjunct or replacement faculty until the university gives him money, and the university can't give him money until it doesn't have any other choice. So when Devereaux encounters a stray news-crew lurking around the university duck pond, he grabs the noisiest fowl in the vicinity, and threatens to “kill a duck a day until I get a budget”. He doesn't mind the fact that the bird happens to be a goose. Nor does he take his threat so seriously as to make good on it. But, when he's not looking, somebody else does.
Straight Man is a funny novel; but somewhere around the middle pages, the thin plot starts to unravel, and scenes grow overly long and diffuse. Russo sets up some intriguing premises—the conflict between unions and administration, husbands and wives, stern fathers and yearning sons—but he never tries to resolve any of them. Like many of his male characters, he seems to be arguing that we don't ever get anywhere in our lives, and neither do the stories we try to make of ourselves. As a philosophy, it's an intriguing notion. But as a method for producing fiction, it doesn't completely satisfy.
SOURCE: Ingalls, Zoë. “A Novelist Finds Humor in Academic Woes.” Chronicle of Higher Education 43, no. 48 (8 August 1997): B8-B9.
[In the following essay, Ingalls discusses the publication of Straight Man and Russo's use of his own experiences in the academic world as fictional material.]
Richard Russo says his first attempt to write fiction wasn't just unsuccessful, “it was wretched.” You can picture him holding his nose at the other end of the phone. He's in Denver, on the first leg of a three-week, cross-country tour to promote his fourth and latest novel, Straight Man.
“It was not only bad,” he continues. “Almost anybody can write a bad story. But it was bad and pretentious.”
The pretension he attributes to being in the throes of a dissertation in English at the time. Only someone in such a position could write something that “exquisitely, painfully off,” he says. “It exhibits a person without the least skill or imagination, but convinced of his own brilliance.”
Some 20 years later, Dr. Russo, 48, has more than made up for his youthful hubris. His first three novels, Mohawk (1986), The Risk Pool (1988), and Nobody's Fool (1993), were published to favorable reviews, and Nobody's Fool was made into a movie, starring Paul Newman and Jessica Tandy.
Straight Man, released by Random House last month, focuses on academic life at the mythical West Central Pennsylvania University, a third-rate state institution in a backwater town that has gone nowhere since the railroad packed up and left a half-century ago. Dr. Russo, who spent nearly 25 years teaching at institutions including Arizona State University and Colby College before turning to writing full time, has put his intimate acquaintance with the follies and foibles of academe to good use. The New York Times Book Review described Straight Man as “the funniest serious novel” since Portnoy's Complaint.
At the center of the book is Hank Devereaux, 49-year-old interim chairman of the English department, whose members are constantly at odds. Rumors of imminent budget cuts and layoffs exacerbate the petty squabbling.
Hank is an unrepentant smart aleck, a man unable to resist the flippant comeback or irreverent putdown. Lately though, he has entered a midlife crisis, and his behavior has taken on a reckless perversity.
He teases the department's poet, who slams her spiral notebook into his face and snags his nostril with the tip of the spiral wire. He provokes the university's administration by appearing on the 11 o'clock news in false nose and glasses, brandishing a live goose and promising to “kill a duck a day” until he gets his budget (see excerpt, this page).
As a result of his behavior, Hank is thrown in jail, lands in the hospital, and is nearly ousted as interim chairman with only two weeks to go in the semester. (All the while he is attempting to deal with his daughter's marital difficulties, his suspicion that his wife is having an affair with the dean, and a recalcitrant urinary-tract disorder.)
“English departments are very funny places,” says Dr. Russo, “and one of the things difficult about it is you're not allowed to laugh.”
“I was able in this book to show a man who doesn't really care anymore. He is going to laugh when people are the most funny, when people are the most envious, when people are the most petty, when people are the most territorial and the most academic. They're very funny, but they don't know it.”
Dr. Russo has lined up a supporting cast of characters easily recognizable in academe. They include Billy Quigley, a drunkard who demands summer sessions and course overloads to help pay the tuition loans for his 10 children; Tony Coniglia, who makes it a rule never to sleep with undergraduates until his final grades are in; and Campbell Wheemer, four years out of graduate school at Brown University and so politically correct that in a departmental meeting he urges his colleagues to vote against him, a white male, when he comes up for tenure. “If we in the English department don't take a stand against sexism, who will?” he asks, on the verge of tears.
He cannot resist inserting “or she” into the conversation every time someone uses a masculine pronoun. It's gotten so bad that his colleagues have taken to calling him “Orshee.”
No wonder Hank finds himself repeating, like some sort of mantra, his observation that “the serious competition in an English department is for the role of straight man.”
Dr. Russo's own long acquaintance with English departments began in 1967, when he left his hometown of Gloversville, in upstate New York, to attend the University of Arizona. He received a bachelor's degree in English there in 1971 and stayed to earn a doctorate in 1979 and a master's of fine arts in 1980.
Dr. Russo taught at Arizona State University, Pennsylvania State University at Altoona, Southern Connecticut State University, and Southern Illinois University at Carbondale before going to Colby in 1992. He was a professor of English and creative writing there for four years before giving himself over to fiction.
This fall, Magic Hour [released as Twilight], a detective movie for which he wrote the screenplay, will be released. It stars Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman, and James Garner. Dr. Russo is now at work on adapting Straight Man to the screen.
Creating and peopling new worlds, whether in academe or hardscrabble towns in upstate New York, are feats that Dr. Russo says he learned from writers he admires: Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, among others. He identifies more closely with 19th-century writers than with many contemporary authors, he says. “I really like the sense you get of knowing the rhythms of life in a particular place, the sense that you could be dropped down in a village and know exactly where you were and exactly what is going on. I miss that in contemporary fiction.”
Most of his characters seem so real, it's hard to believe that they are not. He acknowledges parallels between his own life and those of his characters—“only some of which I would be willing to talk about,” he jokes.
“For virtually every character, I can envision being sued by at least six different people,” he says with a laugh. “I've had people read my books and swear to me a character was based on somebody I knew [but] turned out to be somebody I never met.”
In fact, he says, his characters are more often than not composites, combining traits from various people who have caught his eye. “I'm incapable of telling the truth about anybody for very long in fiction,” he says. “I take a character and start telling lies and embellishing. Hopefully, what ends up in the final draft on the page is a new character with certain traits that might be traceable, but I don't think there's anything in this that any person need be offended by.”
Indeed, Dr. Russo's former colleagues at Southern Illinois find the novel anything but offensive, says John M. Howell, chairman of the English department, who hired him.
“Everybody's sort of looking for bits and pieces” of reality in the fiction and discovering them “here and there,” Dr. Howell says. “He's synthesized various characters and conflated events—moved them into new contexts. It's essentially a very kind novel. Not vicious, as so many academic novels are.”
“I know the provost enjoyed it,” Dr. Howell adds. “He was the dean of the college at the time Rick was here. We've all had a lot of laughs.”
A recurring theme in Dr. Russo's fiction is the relationship between parents and child. In Straight Man, Hank's high jinks can be read as one way of coming to terms with the emotional baggage created by an icily distant father. William Henry Devereaux, Sr., made a name for himself writing trendy books in literary criticism. “This was the fifties, and for him, New Criticism was already old,” Hank observes. His father parlayed his fame into a series of appointments as a distinguished visiting professor. “Duration of visit, a year or two at most, perhaps because it's hard to remain distinguished among people who know you.”
A better scholar than he is a father, William Henry Devereaux, Sr., eventually abandons his wife and son to run off with a student in his D. H. Lawrence seminar. “Since then, he's taken up with a Brontë woman and a Joseph Conrad woman, before finally coming a cropper with Virginia Woolf,” Hank observes.
Like so much of the humor in Straight Man, Hank's statement has an underlying layer of sadness—a sort of reverse silver lining.
Dr. Russo says this is something he learned from reading Dickens—“that I would be the kind of writer who would want to deal in the same work with the darkest human impulses and the most comic, which are often closely allied. My work has gotten funnier, I think, over the course of my career, but also pretty dark.
“I'm sure I learned that from Dickens—that the funniest stuff and the saddest, most sorrowful, can coexist most happily.”
SOURCE: Curwen, Thomas. “Just Joking.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (21 September 1997): 8.
[In the following review, Curwen praises Straight Man as “a thoroughly irreverent, masterful satire of American life, circa 1997.”]
Just shy of his 50th birthday, William Henry Devereaux Jr., the wise-cracking interim head of the English department at West Central Pennsylvania University, is about to realize that he isn't cut out for academic life. It's only taken 20 years, but what fun would an epiphany like this be if it didn't slam like a ton of bricks through the years he's lost trying to deny it?
It's April, the cruelest month, and this particular week isn't going to get any easier. On the home front, Devereaux's wife is about to head off to Philly to interview for a new job, leaving him with their white German shepherd and a kidney stone that feels like the Rock of Gibraltar. His mother, who lives across town, is about to welcome home his philandering father after a 40-year absence, and his youngest daughter, her husband currently unemployed, is about to cut out on the marriage.
Add to that a colleague who took offense at one of his many indelicate quips and gaffed his nose with the spiral end of a loose-leaf notebook and a university that's trying to cut staff and costs by 20٪ and you have the makings of one beautiful midlife crisis. We all should be so lucky, for never has such misfortune seemed so tolerable than in Richard Russo's Straight Man, a thoroughly irreverent, masterful satire of American life, circa 1997.
Russo, who made his mark capturing the foibles and manners of working-class stiffs in his first three novels, Mohawk,The Risk Pool and Nobody's Fool, has retained his dead-pan edge. He's a Raymond Carver without the grunge, a funny Richard Ford and, on the not-so venerable campus of WCPU, an American Kingsley Amis: Devereaux's nom de plume for the column he writes for the local rag, Lucky Hank, is surely a tip of the hat to the author of Lucky Jim.
Hank, like Sully, the Paul Newman character in the film version of Nobody's Fool, is not all too happy with his life, but that doesn't keep him from enjoying himself. In the “face of life's seriousness,” he tells us, “my spirits are far too easily restored,” and as department head, he proudly demonstrates what havoc can be wrought by someone “sufficiently insensitive to ridicule, personal invective, and threat.”
At the groundbreaking ceremony for the million-dollar college of technical careers, he dons fake glasses and nose, grabs a goose by the neck, jumps in front of the television cameras and threatens to kill a bird a day as long as his department doesn't get its budget.
Hank's jokes are hardly subtle. Like slapstick, they're a simple kick in the seat of the pants in a world that he reduces to shades of black and white. Content to skip across the surface of life, attacking difficulty and discomfort to riposte and prank, Hank's not altogether easy with complicating factors. His spiritual guide is none other than William of Occam, a 14th century academic who valiantly fought the pope's tangled explanations of faith by arguing for simplicity in all things.
But life increasingly confounds Hank, and some things can't be joked away. At WCPU, for instance, education has become a commodity. Things are changing, he is warned by the campus executive officer, Dickie Pope, who tries to explain why he has to ax some faculty. “Forces of nature, Hank, pure and simple. … We're fresh out of baby boomers. The colleges that survive the decade are going to be lean and mean.”
It's bad news for the university and bad news for neighboring Railton, a town not quite recovered from the recession and now being hammered by shifting demographics and economics, 1997-style. Russo's portrait of this dying, once thriving Conrail hub, home to workers who have gone from “unemployment to subsistence checks,” is straight out of Dickens (“… though the railroad is all but dead,” he writes, “what remains of the business district is so sooty and gray that a month of rains couldn't cleanse it. …”). The leather tannery that figured so prominently in Russo's Mohawk has been replaced by the university, and what was unemployment is now downsizing, orchestrated by corporations or, in the case of WCPU, state bean counters, intent on the bottom line.
On this and other matters, Hank's colleagues, like their students, are divided between “the vocal clueless and the quietly pensive.” They live with wants and cravings they can't begin to satisfy or afford. No mystery then that Russo keeps returning to the life of William Cherry, a Conrail employee who retired with pension and full benefits and recently lay down in front of a passing train. A sure sign of Russo's skill is how difficult it is to convey the humor of this essentially dark novel.
As he sets his story in motion, he lavishly captures the idiosyncrasies of life in this pressure cooker. It's an environment where strange people—like fellow faculty members Campbell Wheemer, who publishes in electronic magazines, “sparing himself the criticism that his work is not worth the paper it's printed on,” or Phineas Combe, whose Ph.D. is from an institution that exists only “in the form of a post office box in Del Rio, Texas,” onetime home of Wolfman Jack—act stranger. Catch Hank and his friends down at the local watering hole and you'll see the petty viciousness they call collegiality. Find them at the Evergreen getting a prime rib dinner on two-for-one night and chances are they're marinated in sour mash and putting a pleasant face on the latest infidelities or back-stabbing they've lately endured. It's all a story of the numbing security insecure people desperately seek, made all the more painful because, as Hank comes to realize, their pain is just a shadow of his own.
“Other people make their peace with who they are, what they've become,” he thinks at the moment that he's trapped, eavesdropping from the crawl space in the ceiling directly above the conference room where his colleagues, fed up with his antics, are about to vote on his status as interim head. “Why can't I? Why live the life of a contortionist, scrunched in among the rafters? So that I can maintain the costly illusion that I'm not what my father is.”
Wounded—though he would never admit it—when his father abandoned him 40 years ago, stunted by the fame his father has achieved (a professor at Columbia, Devereaux Sr. is known in some circles as the Father of American Literary Theory) and still rebelling, Hank sees the world filled with two kinds of people: those who want to be like their parents and those who work hard at not becoming like their parents. He eventually learns that neither succeeds, and when Hank and his dad reach their rapprochement at the end of the novel during a walk to Railton's abandoned midway, Russo demonstrates his skill separating real emotion from easy sentiment.
“You may find this strange,” his father, a constricted old man, confesses in as much an apology to Hank as it is his own critical reappraisal, “but I've recently started rereading Dickens. … Much of the work is appalling, of course. Simply appalling. … But there is something there, isn't there? Some power … something”—he searches for the right word here “transcendent, really.”
Which is really of course the best word to describe the academic high jinx in Straight Man. After seven days of suffering the fools of his life (albeit gladly), enduring the mortification of the flesh (that damn kidney stone) and realizing the shortcomings of his spiritual guide (“For every complex problem there is a simple solution. And it's always wrong,” as Russo quotes H. L. Mencken at the start of the epilogue), Hank comes to the root of his problem. “Fearing that I was forever tenured … where nothing dramatically good or bad could happen, where I was fully insured against catastrophe, I began to doubt the power of either unpleasantness or ecstasy to touch me.”
Happily he learns otherwise, and Russo, with his leisurely pacing, deliberate dialogue and keen eye for details, shows that realism and farce are not distant cousins, that absurdity can be successfully mined from the ordinary events of an ordinary life without diminishing its humor and truth.
SOURCE: Lee, Michael. Review of Straight Man, by Richard Russo. National Catholic Reporter 33, no. 41 (26 September 1997): 33.
[In the following review, Lee asserts that Russo joins the ranks of several modern authors who satirize academia—Kingsley Amis, John Barth, and Jane Smiley, among others—with the publication of Straight Man.]
No contemporary institution has felt the bite of novelistic parody and ridicule more keenly and more frequently than has academia. From Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim and John Barth's End of the Road in the 1950s to David Lodge's more recent novels and Jane Smiley's Moo, the academy has been laid bare in the comic mode with far more regularity than the military, the law, science or even Madison Avenue.
While some would suggest that this is because the university has become a parody of itself, the more obvious explanation is that parody is an inside job, and there are more novelists hanging around English departments than in corner offices or emergency rooms—novelists who aren't pleased to see colleagues teaching students to deconstruct the work they spend their lives constructing.
With Straight Man, Richard Russo joins company with Amis, Barth, Lodge and Smiley. Set in the ideologically embattled, budgetarily strained and personality-conflicted English department of West Central Pennsylvania University, this truly funny book takes the usual easy shots at the postmodernists feminists, deconstructionists, cultural theorists and self-inflated egotists, all of whom are already so caricatured in the media that one hardly needs a talented novelist to do the job. But Russo is capable of heavy lifting as well.
He uses the chaos of an academic department under budgetary pressure from without and lacking a core of integrity within to represent the larger chaos we know as the contemporary world. West Central Pennsylvania University is an apt comic metaphor for all kinds of institutions wrestling with whatever passes for “soul” while simultaneously trying to deal with the challenge of survival in a budget-driven world run by downsizing specialists.
Russo's narrator/protagonist, William Henry Devereaux Jr., fast approaching 50 and suffering from a chronic urinary problem intransigent enough to “even diminish the power of literature,” is acting chair of an English department on the verge of self-deconstruction. A teacher of fiction writing who hasn't written any fiction in 20 years, Devereaux knows in his heart that academic tenure has made him into “deadwood,” as it has most of his colleagues. Devereaux is the cynical son of a man who in his day personified the academic literary life (Devereaux Sr., the “father of American literary theory,” abdicated his role as father of the 9-year-old Henry by running away with a graduate student from his D. H. Lawrence seminar). Devereaux vents his cynicism and disdain for his father and for academia in an irony-laden newspaper column he writes under the pseudonym of Lucky Hank (a tip of the hat to Kingsley Amis). The column is titled “The Soul of the University.”
Devereaux is assailed by members of the department who accuse him of conspiring with the dean to purge their ranks, and both threatened and tempted by the college president to do exactly that. And Hank finds himself the center of national media attention when he jokingly threatens to kill “a duck a day” from the campus pond until the university budget is handed down intact. No one seems to get the joke, and the novel approaches farce when dead ducks actually begin to appear on campus, victims of a mysterious assassin who attracts simultaneously the ire of animal rights activists and the applause of the faculty union.
Henry Devereaux reminds his class that “all good stories start with character,” and it is here that Russo has triumphed by populating his novel with a rich mix of many hilariously drawn caricatures and three or four characters with real depth. They range from a stereotypically alcoholic professor of Irish literature; to a male “feminist critical theory and image-oriented culture” specialist who announces that he has “no interest in literature per se” and who claims that his white maleness should have precluded him from being hired by his sexist department; to Devereaux Sr., the quintessential “academic opportunist,” whose girlfriends are identified by the seminars he headed (the Virginia Woolf girl, the Joseph Conrad girl, the D. H. Lawrence girl); to the couple who collaborate on an article about “clitoral imagery in Emily Dickinson,” the woman “being herself in possession of a clitoris and therefore more sensitive to its encoded appearances” and the man making use of “his up-to-date critical theory vocabulary”; to the college's sleazy Machiavellian president.
These minor characters entertain us without causing us to think too seriously about the extent to which Russo may or may not be advancing a right-of-center critique of academic culture. It he is doing so, the novelistic wolf is much less convincing than the sheep's clothing it inhabits.
While the comic plot and cast of zany characters of Straight Man entertain us, the character and the voice of William Henry Devereaux will make the book memorable. Devereaux is Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim with tenure, which is his very problem. Not wanting to be like his father (“confused, abstracted, disappointed when jolted out of book like into real life”), Hank has discovered after 15 years of tenured life that perhaps he's inherited more from his father than kidney stones and a taste for tweed jackets and button-down Oxford shirts.
Hearing a rumor that he might be on the department hit list, he feels a stirring he can't quite name: “What I'm really at a loss to explain is the odd thrill that the rumor might be true. But I also remember the look of excitement in Teddy's eyes when he brought the matter up at the Civic. Could it be that we two middle-aged men are so hungry for something to happen to us?” This hunger expresses itself in a four-day spree of perverse behavior aimed at making that “something” happen and thereby jeopardizing the cozy career that for Hank has actually been more a soul-draining trap.
As a writer, albeit a failed one, and as a teacher of literature, Henry Devereaux knows he will always be in danger of becoming like his father, for whom “relatively few experiences of his life (excepting carnal ones) did not originate on the printed page.” This knowledge leads to a kind of comic self-loathing that expresses itself in a steady stream of English-department wit with a nasty twist born of ironic distance from just about everyone around him (with occasional dispensations granted his wife and daughter).
This double-consciousness, this ability to offer reams of flippant commentary on everyone and everything around him, while at the same time acknowledging the shallowness of a life quickly becoming pathetic because it lacks principle and purpose, makes Hank a very funny man. But the fact that he knows the joke is at his own expense—that he is his own “straight man”—makes Henry Devereaux a full-fledged comic antihero. Add to the mix the character's acute sense of mortality—powerfully evoked in two scenes in particular (one a memory of Mrs. Devereaux's tearful reaction to her 9-year-old son's suicide attempt, the other a flashback to Henry's own tearful response to his daughter's bicycle accident)—and you have a seriously comic version of a world that in the final analysis is worth living in, with or without tenure; early John Barth without the nihilism.
For those of us who work in English departments, Straight Man will not fit Jonathan Swift's definition of satire as “a kind of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own.” We are all here, discoverable in one or another of these characters. But because William Henry Devereaux Jr. outgrows his “Lucky Hank” persona, the voice of this novel will speak to a much larger body of readers, academics or otherwise, and it is a voice wonderfully worth listening to for its pathos and genuine humanity as much as for its abundant cleverness.
SOURCE: Charles, Ron. “Pillorying Pretentious Professors.” Christian Science Monitor (6 October 1997): 14.
[In the following review, Charles lauds Russo's insight and wit in Straight Man, noting that the novel's satire “never slides into artifice.”]
University life has served as an irresistible subject for some of the funniest satire in modern literature.
After teaching briefly at Sarah Lawrence College, Mary McCarthy set the standard high with The Groves of Academe (1952), her acerbic satire of a liberal college for women. Just two years ago Jane Smiley, who teaches at Iowa State, lambasted a Midwestern university in Moo: A Novel, a bestseller that sprawled across dozens of strange and hilarious characters.
The narrator of the latest addition to this genre, Straight Man by Richard Russo, observes wryly that “virtually everybody in the English department has a half-written novel squirreled away in a desk drawer. Sad little vessels all. Scruffy the Tugboat, lost and scared on the open sea. All elegantly written, all with the same artistic goal—to evidence a superior sensibility.”
Fortunately, Russo's fully written novel is neither sad nor overwrought for he evinces plenty of elegance and flawless timing. He demonstrates that it's possible to laugh at, and with, someone simultaneously.
The novel opens at the peak of a budget crisis at West Central Pennsylvania University that threatens to fall with particular severity on the English department. Forced into the center of this debate is the reluctant interim chair, William Henry Devereaux Jr., who proudly admits that his “lack of administrative skill is legend.”
In a moment of ill-conceived fury he preempts the televised dedication of a new Technical Careers Center by threatening to kill one of the campus geese every day until a budget arrives on his desk.
With outrageous but straight-faced retorts that endear him to us but infuriate his colleagues, Devereaux struggles to endure and even enjoy the contentious characters who despise their jobs at this third-rate university, but like the campus geese are too lazy to fly away.
The author, who taught at Colby College, has assembled the usual cast of temperamental faculty and incompetent administrators that devotees of comic university novels will recognize. There's an earnest young professor so devoted to gender-neutral language that Hank refers to him as “Orshe”; a modern theorist who rejects literature entirely and teaches only from videotapes of television sitcoms; a poet who communicates almost entirely by filing grievances against her colleagues. Here are the frustrated high school teachers and faux scholars who never planned to stay more than a year or two but grew fatally comfortable when the university was expanding and now find themselves trapped by their unmarketability.
Surrounded by accusations of betrayal in a rumor-infested department about to lose 20 percent of its faculty, Devereaux has a deep, redeeming affection for his colleagues as he goads them into open hostility with his straight man routine.
Even the unpublished poet who damages his nose with her spiral binder receives nothing but his benign understanding and ironic asides. “People have only a finite amount of meanness in them,” Devereaux observes, “and most times they exhaust it quickly.” Though the novel is unrelentingly funny, it is Hank's deep appreciation for his colleagues' humanity that raises it above so many other academic satires.
Life outside the hallowed walls of the university is no more stable for Hank than in his panicked department. While he worries that his long-suffering wife may be having an affair with the dean, he tries not to offer advice to his alliterate daughter as her marriage breaks up. Running beneath this hectic week lies Hank's dread of his brilliant father's return. This repressed, but constant concern about inheriting his errant father's talent, selfishness, and illness, pulls the novel into the psychological depth that confirms the author's extraordinary talent for drawing characters.
Russo writes repartee that crackles with wit but never slides into artifice. Though his characters are often struggling against deep-seated sadness, the force of his wit is enough to convince us that such pain and sadness are not inevitable or final.
The feminist poet with the lethal binder finally admits, “You may not believe me, but I've always liked you, Hank. You're like a character in a good book. Almost real, you know?”
She hits it—and him—on the nose.
SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Love Later On.” New Republic 218, no. 13 (30 March 1998): 26-7.
[In the following excerpt, Kauffmann argues that Twilight is an ineffective attempt to counter youth-driven Hollywood movies, characterizing Robert Benton and Russo's dialogue as “laboriously smart.”]
Twilight (Paramount) is indeed crepuscular. Robert Benton, who directed and cowrote it (with Richard Russo), clearly wanted to strike a blow for his film generation in this era of teenage pleasurings. So he devised a film to star Paul Newman and Gene Hackman and James Garner and (much younger but still not young) Susan Sarandon. In 1977, Benton did The Late Show, with Art Carney as an aging private eye who gets in trouble. This time Newman is the private eye, retired, who gets in trouble.
After a brief prologue in Mexico, the film takes place in Hollywood and environs. The chief setting is the mansion of Hackman, a former movie figure, and his wife, Sarandon, an ex-star. Newman, an old friend, lives over the garage. Asked by Hackman to deliver an envelope to a mysterious woman, Newman steps into a mess, in which he meets two old acquaintances, James Garner, another retired cop, and Stockard Channing, a former lover, still a cop.
The plot winds along, much like watching one of those TV chefs prepare a dish, a touch of this stock ingredient, a dash of that, including sex of course. But Benton never had any real purpose in mind other than to fling this geriatric gauntlet in the face of contemporary youth worship. Benton and Russo's screenplay has a lot of dialogue that is laboriously smart, and it leans heavily on mystery-novel characterization—that is, one character tic for each person. Example: a parole officer, when fatally shot, mumbles something about lifelong bad luck before expiring. The clever camera work of Piotr Sobocinski discloses a basic itch—to make a film noir in color: he ingeniously swathes some garish scenes in deep shadow.
Newman, now 73, is so welcome on the screen that we wish it were possible to give him a hug. He does perfectly all that he is asked to do, but aside from the fact that it's pleasant to watch Newman doing it, the role could have been played by many a less talented man. All the others are as good as they need to be. In the last moment Benton has Channing do something with Newman that is in doubtful taste; but perhaps he wanted to prove that, though he and some of his cast are well along, they are not over the hill.
SOURCE: Saari, Jon. Review of Straight Man, by Richard Russo. Antioch Review 56, no. 2 (spring 1998): 240.
[In the following review, Saari praises the rich comic narrative of Straight Man.]
The running joke here is that the university is a three-ring circus of clowns and buffoons who provide an unending supply of hilarity. In the hands of Russo's William Henry Devereaux, Jr., or Lucky Hank to friends and enemies alike, the narrator [of Straight Man], life at the backwater West Central Pennsylvania University creates an unnerving anticipation of disaster. In a time of frenzy and wrath, Henry Devereaux, the interim head of the English department, finds attention directed toward him and his supposed hit list, the result of a 20 percent faculty cutback mandated by the campus CEO, Dickie Pope. Devereaux's colleagues are often vociferous in registering their contempt for him, but Devereaux is hardly timid in fending off the slings and arrows directed his way. In fact, he is a familiar type—an intelligent man who can't control his mouth, or as Dickie Pope observes, his goading. What he wants is often elusive even to himself. All hell breaks lose for Devereaux when he dons funny glasses and fake nose to announce on the local news show that he plans to kill a duck (actually goose) a day until he gets his departmental budget. Obviously a ruse on Devereaux's part, this is an effective device to teach his students the difference between comedy and tragedy; the local animal rights group supplies protective neck guards for the geese. With the stakes so small, Russo turns up the book's volume as high as he can get it, and the results are very funny indeed. The novel is rich in comic incidents—ones that will find you laughing out loud. Things turn out right in the end despite Lucky Hank's tendency to be irritating and indulgent of the pleasure he gets from the smart remark.
SOURCE: Simon, John. “Benton in Clover, Coens in Bilge.” National Review 50, no. 6 (6 April 1998): 58-9.
[In the following review, Simon compliments Twilight as a “rare crime story that makes sense.”]
Some years ago Robert Benton, Richard Russo, and Paul Newman came up with a winner, Nobody's Fool, and here they are with another one, Twilight, directed by Benton, co-written by him and Russo, and again starring Newman. This time, though, it's a very different story, about rich, amoral people in Los Angeles, part detective thriller, part romantic triangle (sort of), part chronicle of complicated friendships and betrayals, a way-we-live-now morality tale.
Adroitly mixed, these elements coexist remarkably. At the center is Harry Ross (Newman), once a cop, then a private eye, who manages to track down, in the film's prologue, the runaway daughter of wealthy Jack and Catherine Ames (Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon). The underage girl, Mel (Reese Witherspoon), is living it up in Puerto Vallarta with a boyfriend, Jeff (Liev Schreiber), until Harry comes to fetch her home. Jeff tries to stop him, there's a fracas, and Mel picks up a gun dropped by Harry and shoots him in the leg.
A couple of years later, Harry has given up detective work and is living with the Ameses as a handyman, apparently doing nothing much besides playing cards with Jack and yearning for Catherine. Jack is ill, diagnosed as having a maximum of ten months to live. He and Catherine fell in love when she, a movie actress, was married to a man who soon died somewhat mysteriously, perhaps a suicide. His body was never found. Catherine and Jack married and lived happily until illness struck.
Strange things start happening as Jack asks Harry to deliver a money package to a certain Gloria Lamar. You don't have to be a movie buff to guess that anyone called Gloria Lamar is bad news, and that delivering a small brown package spells black calamity. And here, though I hate doing this to you, I must stop giving away plot.
But I can tell you much else. First, that Twilight, like L.A. Confidential, is a rare crime story that makes sense, its parts not only fitting together but also understandable to non-experts at solving movie mysteries. Yet one does not guess what comes next, and legitimate surprises jostle one another. There is no Quentin Tarantino cuteness, Stephen King horror, or (fill in the name) over-complication and confusion. It all feels as natural as a movie about a boy and his dog. Actually, more so.
Though the characters are not presented fully in the round, enough is there in the aptly sophisticated dialogue and telling observation to elicit your intensely concerned involvement. And there are other characters of interest. There is Verna (Stockard Channing), a police lieutenant with whom Harry once had an affair, now investigating a murder in which he is somehow implicated. There is Reuben (Giancarlo Esposito), an amiably bumbling young Hispanic, who sometimes assists Harry, with limited usefulness. There is Raymond (James Garner), a tough old friend of both Jack's and Harry's, who … but I'm getting too discursive again.
Twilight is an apt title. Most of the action takes place late in the day or at night, or in interiors elegantly underlit. More to the point, the moral chiaroscuro: the lovely but hard Catherine, the jovial but devious Jack, the stalwart but fallible Harry, the mixed-up Mel, the ambivalent Verna, and so on. These incertitudes are marvelously caught by Piotr Sobocinski's sublime camera work. The film looks ineffably sumptuous without the least glossiness, glitziness, or apparent studiedness. Nothing obstructs the joyously colorful variety of things, obscures that numinous or transcendent something in a bit of nature, furniture, or architecture. Or in the people: their lived-in faces and bodies, their touching imperfections and compelling asymmetries.
Benton's direction is ungimmicky yet never obvious: camera angles, movements, compositions are a little more than ordinary but less than recherché. The pacing is uncannily right, neither hurried nor slack. Despite necessary foreshortening, the film's time feels real. And you believe the actors. Doubts have been voiced about the age differences between Miss Sarandon and her men. But nothing feels unnatural. Hackman has one of those grittily eloquent faces, unbeautiful but solidly, agelessly virile. Newman, formerly rather too handsome, has aged into graceful credibility: bearable good looks, like those of a very fine used car. And Miss Sarandon, whose loveliness was always a bit overripe, has receded into just ripeness. Neither young nor old, neither flawlessly beautiful nor tangibly imperfect, she is earthily feminine but with a hint of hidden fragility—infinitely desirable.
All three act sovereignly; so, too, the supporting cast—in particular Miss Channing of the all-encompassing gaze—is always on the mark. Even Elmer Bernstein's music, like Joseph G. Aulisi's costumes, remains smartly inconspicuous. Twilight knows exactly what it is about but, best of all, knows it with exemplary unself-consciousness.
SOURCE: Jacobs, Rita D. Review of Straight Man, by Richard Russo. World Literature Today 72, no. 4 (autumn 1998): 832-33.
[In the following review, Jacobs commends the “complex” and “witty” protagonist of Straight Man.]
There is no denying the voyeuristic allure of a novel set in your own backyard, or in one that very much resembles it, and peopled by your neighbors. This is certainly part of the charm of Straight Man. It is a novel of academe, and better yet, the central character is an English professor surrounded by the wondrous diversity of beleaguered souls who have also chosen that profession. But Richard Russo's work is more than merely “an academic novel,” meaning it is not limited by a fusty formula. Neither is it a genre novel which focuses on an exploration of undergraduate peccadilloes, a kind of borderline bordello novel. Rather, Russo's fourth novel (after Mohawk,The Risk Pool, and Nobody's Fool) is a complex, witty, and moving portrait of a very intelligent, middle-aged man trapped in a variety of ways.
William Henry “Hank” Devereaux Jr., the son of an eminent English professor and critic, wrote a well-received novel, Off the Road, early in his career, but he has produced nothing since. He is currently the chair of the English Department at West Central Pennsylvania University, an institution of which few of its inhabitants are proud. He has a wife who leaves town early in the novel, although her presence permeates his thoughts during all his adventures. He also has a daughter who is going through marital difficulties and a house with a lovely view that is the envy of several of his colleagues. But these are the bare facts of a life, the given circumstances, if you will. What is most engaging to the reader is the ironic yet passionate relationship Hank Devereaux has to all the elements of his life.
Adrift in midlife and midcareer angst, exacerbated or perhaps evidenced by the fact that he struggles with a full bladder yet is unable to urinate with any power, he is certain that his prostate has, as had his father's before him, gone bad. He tries to simplify his life, to rid it of everyone else's complications, including his daughter and her woes, the beautiful adult daughter of a colleague who is an adjunct faculty member and signals her availability by leaving him ripe peaches, the antagonistic colleague who tries to best him at every turn, and students who write all too convincingly about necrophilia. He struggles to live by the rule of Occam's Razor—keeping everything as simple as possible—yet winds up giving in to some of his passions, not the adulterous ones, but those would be much less hilarious than his threatening to kill a goose on local TV.
Russo has a fine comic ear, split-second timing, and an eye for the absurdity of everyday life. Moreover, his ability to use dialogue to limn character in the midst of this first-person narrative is exquisite. Devereaux himself is at once participant and observer in his own life, constantly aware of the ambiguities of his world just as any good academic should be. His voice and his struggle to find a kind of peace outside the furor of petty politics, bureaucrats, tenure, and promotion will make a mark in the reader's mind well after the plot has faded. Devereaux is an intellectual for our time, suffused with pop culture, psychological awareness, and a continually threatened commitment to the life of the mind. Straight Man is a wonderfully satisfying novel.
SOURCE: Charles, Ron. “Grease Spots on the American Dream.” Christian Science Monitor (10 May 2001): 18-19.
[In the following review, Charles lauds the literary accomplishment of Empire Falls, arguing that the “history of American literature may show that Richard Russo wrote the last great novel of the 20th century.”]
The history of American literature may show that Richard Russo wrote the last great novel of the 20th century. His newly released Empire Falls holds the fading culture of small-town life in a light that's both illuminating and searing. It captures the interplay of past and present, comedy and tragedy, nation and individual in the tradition of America's greatest books.
The mills that caused Empire Falls, Maine, to mushroom during the last half of the 19th century have long since closed in this carefully drawn novel. But the Whiting family still owns the industrial husks, the river frontage, most of the town's buildings, and the tired souls of its inhabitants.
One of those cowed citizens is Miles Roby, whose reflexive patience frustrates even the friends and relatives who adore him. Twenty years ago, against his dying mother's wishes, he dropped out of college to care for her and manage the Empire Grill. Like everything else, it's owned by the Whiting matriarch, but Miles clings to a vague promise that he'll inherit the dilapidated restaurant when the time comes.
But time has come and gone in Empire Falls, and old Mrs. Whiting shows no sign of ever loosening her grasp on life or the town or Miles. Along with her maniacal cat, she has long nursed an interest in him, expressed in acts of generosity laced with an aftertaste of poison.
At 42, Miles finds himself stuck in a greasy spoon, “haunted by a profound feeling of personal failure.”
His fitness-crazed wife has filed for divorce, with loud revelations about his various inadequacies. She plans to marry the virile Silver Fox, a daily patron at the Empire Grill who's full of helpful suggestions about improving his business.
Although Miles is practically single again, the waitress he's ogled since high school has fallen in love with his brother, who may be using the restaurant to distribute marijuana.
More troubling, one of his high school companions has become a petty police officer and launched a campaign of low-level harassment.
And finally, his 16-year-old daughter can't seem to break up with her sleazy boyfriend, make peace with her future stepfather, or distance herself from a frighteningly disturbed classmate.
Amid these challenges, Miles raises his daughter with quiet desperation, settling for a truce with the forces suffocating his older dreams. “There was much to be thankful for,” he thinks, “even if the balance of things remained too precarious to inspire confidence.”
But that sullen peace is only a facade to cover a spirit torn by love and fear, guilt and resentment, tensions Russo captures beautifully as Miles paints an old church in his spare time. He volunteered for the job, but he eyes the tall steeple with dread as he scrapes away the flakes, preparing for a new coat of white. Like so many episodes in this remarkable book, it's a scene redolent with symbolic meaning but naturally blended into the spectrum of these people's lives.
Just as the past lingers around Empire Falls, italicized chapters rise up in the main story to trace the strange involvement of Miles's family with the Whitings. These episodes, tinted with gothic motifs and punctured with tragedy, emphasize the tremors of will and affection that continue to quiver in the survivors.
The deadpan wit of Russo's previous book, Straight Man, runs all through this more weighty novel, particularly in his devastating (and devastatingly funny) descriptions of small-minded people. But what's remarkable about Russo is his willingness to climb into the minds of the vain, the stupid, the stubborn, even the cruel, and discover in their vulnerable souls the germs of dormant humanity.
The pressure that directs the Knox River to dump debris along the banks of Empire Falls is no more powerful than the urges of these alienated people to wreak havoc on those nearby. Throughout this mammoth book, Russo describes the politics of town, school, and family with a sense of moral outrage, tempered by comic appreciation of the grotesque.
The inhabitants of Empire Falls seem so real that the smallest incidents are engaging, and the horrors that erupt will catch your breath. Try reminding yourself it's only a book while praying their dreams somehow break into life.
“After all,” the narrator says, “what was the whole wide world but a place for people to yearn for their hearts' impossible desires, for those desires to become entrenched in defiance of logic, plausibility, and even the passage of time, as eternal as polished marble?”
In Empire Falls, Russo has carved the whole wide world of this little town with such fidelity that we can't help but consider the dimensions of our own lives.
SOURCE: Cryer, Dan. “Through the Mill.” Washington Post Book World 31, no. 21 (27 May-2 June 2001): 7.
[In the following review, Cryer notes Russo's skillful characterization of Miles Roby and his small-town community in Empire Falls.]
Stay with Miles Roby long enough and you can't miss the integrity, reliability, kindness and thoughtfulness that make him such a decent human being. In the short run, though, these qualities are likely to be obscured by truckloads of inertia, risk-aversion and general bloodlessness. Most folks in little Empire Falls in central Maine admire Roby, who runs the local diner, but they sense that some vital spark is missing in him. Despite 20 years of marriage, his wife, Janine, is so put off by her husband's malaise that she's left him for a sexy, muscled, fitness-club entrepreneur.
Like his hometown, the protagonist of Richard Russo's latest novel, Empire Falls, seems battered and gun-shy, maybe even doomed for the scrap heap. Empire Falls—a generation ago the thriving base of a timber and textile company—is now blemished by abandoned factories and boarded-up stores. Once-mighty Whiting Enterprises has been reduced to an elderly widowed termagant, Mrs. Whiting, with a grown daughter, Cindy, warehoused in a distant mental hospital. The townspeople, deprived of good jobs, bereft of hope, make do on bitterness and regret.
This is the blue-collar, rust-belt territory the author has depicted so knowingly and sympathetically in Mohawk,The Risk Pool and, especially, Nobody's Fool. His previous novel, Straight Man, a hilarious academic satire, was the sole exception. But whether poking fun at time-serving professors or exposing the underside of American capitalism, Russo writes with a warm, vibrant humanity. His fakers and screwups aren't merely stick figures to make debating points but flesh-and-blood people who surprise us at every misadventure. William Henry Devereaux Jr., his wisecracking English professor in Straight Man, stumbled into one self-created mess after another. Even more memorable, Donald Sullivan of Nobody's Fool was as much a creation of his own mistakes as a victim of monolithic economic forces.
It takes longer for the quieter, less robust Miles Roby to register in our consciousness. He's not as over-the-top silly as Hank, as endearingly self-sabotaging as Sully. He's a puzzle, we recognize, and some assembly is required. Russo's painstaking handling of these complications of character pushes the novel into far more subtle fictional territory, I suspect, than he originally imagined.
I say that because the prologue points the novel in another, almost cartoonish direction. Here the focus is not on Miles at all but on C. B. Whiting, the reluctant scion (he'd rather be a poet living in Mexico), whose eventual suicide makes his wife a window. The tone, à la John Irving, is at once cutesy and portentous, unlike the rest of the book. Russo writes that Whiting men “invariably married women who made their lives a misery.” It was their “particular curse … that their wives remained loyal to them out of spite.” Hence the husbands' desire to kill. C. B., who represented the end of the line, turned his homicidal urges on himself.
Owning virtually all of Empire Falls, including the diner where Miles daily presides, the Whitings have set the town's agenda. And it is the formidable Mrs. Whiting who understands Miles better than he does himself. A parvenue raised from poverty by a Bowdoin education and an advantageous marriage, she is wont to lecture him on his failings. “People confuse power with will,” she tells him, “because so few of them have the foggiest idea what they want. Absent any knowledge, will remains impotent.”
Aside from remaining close with his beloved daughter, 16-year-old Tick, the impotent, befogged Miles is clueless about what to do with the rest of his life. At 42, he debates whether to petition Mrs. Whiting for a liquor license (the only way to make the diner profitable), whether to chuck it all and start anew as a bookseller on Martha's Vineyard (a pipe dream, it seems), even whether to overcome his fear of heights and paint the steeple at St. Catherine's Church (a benevolence this devoted Catholic has offered without pay).
Miles's diner crossroads affords Russo a wide-angle view of the entire community, from powers temporal (Mrs. Whiting and Jimmy Minty, a cop from the wrong side of the tracks) to powers spiritual (Miles's confidant, Father Mark, and dotty old Father Tom). Within Miles's family—Tick; his father, Max; late mother, Grace; and brother, David—the author produces a stirring mix of poignancy, drama and comedy. Tick's teenage world is unsettling and precarious. Max, retired from everything but boozing and mischief-making, is at once exasperating ne'er-do-well and comic relief. Grace, whose death from cancer long ago forced Miles to drop out of college, was as selfless as Max is selfish. In this regard, David reminds him, Miles remains too much his mother's son.
Richard Russo layers these tangled relationships into a richly satisfying portrait of a man within a defining community. Not a stylist, the author seems determined to subordinate style to honest and compassionate storytelling. That Empire Falls resonates so deeply is a measure of its unexpected truths.
SOURCE: Marcus, James. Review of Empire Falls, by Richard Russo. Atlantic Monthly 287, no. 6 (June 2001): 104.
[In the following review, Marcus praises Empire Falls as Russo's “most ambitious work to date,” but notes that the novel feels overlong.]
Richard Russo first made his reputation with a series of blue-collar novels that suggested a more antic and expansive Raymond Carver. But by the time he published Straight Man, in 1997, Russo was clearly interested in breaking new ground, and that foray into academic farce showed off his comic timing and sneaky construction to superb effect. Now comes Empire Falls, the author's most ambitious work to date. The title refers to a down-at-heel town in contemporary Maine whose pulp mills and shirt factory have long since fallen silent, leaving the population to eke out a living along the economic margins—in bars, doughnut shops, greasy spoons. Russo attends to both the mighty (the plutocratic Whiting clan) and the meek (everybody else). Yet the focus of this post-industrial panorama is Miles Roby, the manager of the Empire Grill, who seems to preside serenely over the collapse of his personal and professional lives. His wife has left him for the local fitness-club mogul, and his restaurant, leased unto eternity from the rapacious Francine Whiting, is on its last legs. Miles, however, is a pathologically nice guy. And Russo gets the maximum mileage out of his protagonist's passivity, making it a source of laughter and melancholic recognition: “One of the odd things about middle age, he concluded, was the strange decisions a man discovers he's made by not really making them, like allowing friends to drift away through simple neglect.” It may be that the author, a master of sweet-and-sour narrative, has allowed Miles's good nature to grow a little too sugary. And at just over 500 pages the novel feels overstuffed. Still, we sense that the protagonist's lengthy fuse will lead, sooner or later, to an explosion—and when it finally comes, Russo's slow-burn strategies prove to be smart ones after all.
SOURCE: Max, D. T. “Expecting Failure, Finding Faith.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (10 June 2001): 17.
[In the following review of Empire Falls, Max commends the novel for its appealing style and humor but faults the work for its heavy-handed symbolism.]
Richard Russo has focused on fading Middle American towns in several of his earlier books. By now he knows his stuff. His new novel introduces the reader to the town of Empire Falls, Maine. It's been a mill town without a purpose ever since its main industry closed some 20 years ago. Its residents, still stunned, drift. “People rarely knew what they wanted,” the local bartender notes. “Despite their certainty that they did know, she'd never seen much compelling evidence. …”
Hope springs eternal though. The sight of a limousine with Massachusetts plates sets the townspeople to gossiping. In such diminished circumstances, their sins, like their virtues, are modest. Max Roby, a wily seventy-something retired house painter, convinces a senile priest to steal an offering box so they can spend a winter drinking in Key West. His son Miles works hard, managing a grill whose popularity comes from the fact that the Rexall drugstore next door has been knocked down, allowing a view of the closed mill. In Empire Falls, this is what passes for good luck.
The Roby family is at the center of Empire Falls. Their predicament is succinctly summarized by Charlene, a waitress whom Miles has spent 25 years lusting after only to discover she has become his brother's girlfriend: “Between your mom and dad and [your brother] and you there's like, one complete person. Your father never thinks about anybody but himself, and your mom was always thinking about other people and never herself. David thinks only about the present and you think only about the past and future.” There's more. Miles' daughter Tick doesn't know what to think: She looks at the world with the innocent, exasperated eyes of a teenager. Miles' soon-to-be-ex-wife teaches aerobics at the local health club. She has decided life is easier if you stop thinking entirely. Somehow in the midst of this, Miles must learn his own mind. Except that self-knowledge is not much admired in Empire Falls. Miles prides himself on being a nice guy, a “model of tolerance.” Everyone else sees him as a sucker, an easy touch, passive. The health club owner jokes about stealing his wife and then does. Mrs. Whiting, the mill heiress who owns the restaurant, threatens to close it down. The town slips further and further into despair. “Do something,” his brother David tells the 42-year-old Miles, “even if it['s] wrong.”
The male characters in this book often live on the edge of violent fantasy. Miles and one of the town's police, longtime competitors, get into a fistfight. A teenager goes on a murderous rampage. Frustration at the loss of male prowess is widespread. I counted five men dreaming of beating someone else up in the first 100 pages. To do something even if it's wrong: What a man ought to do in these circumstances, of course, is more difficult than to lash out. It is to heal, to become a complete person, to reintegrate within himself the fractured elements of his family. Miles' journey, like all novelistic journeys, is one of reintegration.
There are a great many readers who will find this multigenerational saga enjoyable. It's got scope and heart and an easy, funny style. Empire Falls is recognizable and its inhabitants appealing. Kevin Spacey will play Miles and Kate Beckinsale, ravishing in cotton dresses, will be Grace, his selfless mother, in the flashback scenes. For the raffish Max, who sees “fender benders as opportunities,” how about Jack Lemmon? The teenage Tick too, who has turned shrugs into a language, is nicely drawn and would be a treat to watch on screen.
But I had some difficulty with it. I was often distracted by the machinery below the novel's decks. We are tipped off that Grace is pregnant by her frequent trips to the bathroom to vomit.
A character who walks into a bar so shaken he has to have a drink won't tell his interlocutors the “most horrifying and heartbreaking thing he had ever seen.” One section ends with the old tease, “I have a proposal for you.” At the same time, the story seems too concerned with its symbolic self. Miles is patient. Grace dies devout. Empire Falls begins and ends with a flood. In the midst, Mrs. Whiting admires Miles as “a life study in deft navigation.” She herself will meet her fate in the water. Miles is frightened of heights and can't paint the church steeple, too-apt symbol of his own failure of ambition and crisis of faith. Symbolic novels don't have to be obscure to work, but when they are this obvious they interfere with the reader's need to imagine the story as drawn from the accidents of life.
Russo's invocation of religion is intriguing, though. Miles' task is to get his act together, to shake off the dust and realize his dream, which in this case is a bookstore on Martha's Vineyard. But what's suggested here is that that's only the first step. Grace did this once, experiencing a life-restoring, two-day affair there. It was her chance to leave Max and find happiness. But when she returned to Empire Falls, the priest told her she had to abandon her lover. It killed the man and left Grace to a life of sorrow. It is a memory that still makes Miles angry, and it is why, 33 years later, he can still dream of killing the priest. He should look again at the meaning of his mother's story. It is more complicated. After her lover's death, Grace resigned herself to growing old alone. Renunciation turned out to suit her. A life of faith may be superior to a life of self-satisfaction.
The same might be said for Empire Falls too. For all its decay, underneath it all the town's very suffering gives it a character more prosperous regions to the south will never have. On some level Richard Russo knows this. Why else would he lavish such affection on it and similar decrepit towns? Why else do the residents cling to it? Grace turns out to be a woman whom “sorrow actually made more beautiful,” an epitaph of the town of Empire Falls, when the last business finally closes, might claim as well.
SOURCE: Prager, Michael. “Run-of-the-Mill? Not Empire Falls.” Boston Globe (27 June 2001): D13.
[In the following review, Prager offers a positive assessment of Empire Falls, lauding Russo's “entirely natural portrayal of small-town life.”]
In the Empire Falls of Richard Russo's clever and knowing fifth novel, [Empire Falls,] the empire has all but fallen. Led by the mighty Whitings, its textile mills had powered the fictitious central Maine town for generations, but now only tatters remain.
The most visible remnants are the two old factories that stand hard by the Knox River, but there are plenty of others, including the clan's flinty, calculating matriarch, and memories woven deeply into the fabric of the community.
This is no more so than for Miles Roby, the town's moral center and the reader's rooting interest. Not only does he share the common history, but also there are mysterious ties between his family and the Whitings. When the mills closed, Miles's mother went to work for Mrs. Whiting, but even more binds them together.
Miles is cynical, but sweet and fairly virtuous. He gives of himself to the church, is a devoted dad, and believes that his just rewards will come if he can only be patient.
It's that sort of attitude that explains why he's still in town at all. It had been his mother's most desperate dream that he get away, that he leave for college and never come back. And her dream was coming true, right up to the day he got the call that Grace Roby had cancer, and he should come home.
The thing is, it wasn't his mother who was calling; she'd been undergoing radiation and chemotherapy for six weeks, and hid that information from him. It was Francine Whiting, who always had deeper, darker motives, summoning him home. She wasn't just suggesting a visit. She needed someone to take over the Empire Grill, a greasy spoon that she owned downtown, and if he would do it, just “for a year or so,” she would ensure that Grace would get the care she needed.
But after his mother died, Mrs. Whiting changed the bait, promising that he'd inherit the Grill upon her death. Now Miles is in his mother's shoes: stuck in a small Maine town with few prospects, saddled with a worthless mate, and dependent on Mrs. Whiting, but willing to slog it out for the benefit of offspring.
It's not surprising that Miles would go along with his mother's wish that he get out, and then go along with Mrs. Whiting's wish that he remain, because they are not dissimilar.
Russo is forever making such contrasts of character, to great success. Max Roby, Miles's father, for example, is also not dissimilar to Mrs. Whiting, in that they are true to their natures, and unapologetic of them, even if they should be. Both far outlived their spouses and have retained their vitality.
The character who is most like Mrs. Whiting, however, is Timmy the Cat. Timmy regularly pees on the grave of C. B. Whiting, the man who made Mrs. Whiting a widow, and scratches Miles every time he sees him.
There is plenty of whimsy in Empire Falls, beginning with the descriptive undertone of its name, a nuance shared by the Iron Bridge, which Grace had to cross every day to report for duty at Mrs. Whiting's. There's also the Robidoux Blight, a spit of land that C. B. obliterated in an attempt to change the course of the Knox River. It was during negotiations for the project that he met Francine Robidoux, a daughter of the landowner. One could easily argue that while destroying one Robidoux Blight, he picked up another one, Francine Robidoux.
Russo packs in plenty of subtle humor as well, such as the coffee shop whose smoking policy is “Go ahead. See if we care.” And when Max is trying to wheedle some cash out of Miles, and argues that if he had pocket money, he'd be more dignified, Miles observes dryly: “I think the dignity ship set sail a long time ago, Dad.”
Empire Falls is a complicated place, and Empire Falls is a complicated tale. Russo tells it on parallel tracks, in the present day and in the accumulated past, a technique that serves his entirely natural portrayal of small-town life, in which everyone knows not only their peers but their parents, or children, or both. It also lets Russo build in suspense and surprise from two directions before they merge.
That there even is suspense comes as a surprise, and slowly. The first mystery doesn't arise until better than 150 pages have passed, and it's another 150 before the first revelation grabs hold. Russo's feathery foreshadowing is perhaps his finest touch, in a novel with finery all about. There have always been grounds for going to Maine, especially in summer: the beach, cottage life, rafting, and hunting. But with Empire Falls, Russo has provided another compelling reason.
SOURCE: McCleese, Don. Review of Empire Falls, by Richard Russo. Book (July 2001): 63.
[In the following review, McCleese compliments Russo's balancing of comedic and tragic elements in Empire Falls.]
Writer Tom Wolfe once charged that “the American novel is dying, not of obsolescence, but of anorexia.” The remedy? “Novelists with the energy and the verve to approach America in the way her moviemakers do,” with “huge appetites and mighty, unslaked thirsts.” For a feast of social realism, the hungry reader might turn to Richard Russo's latest work, a multigenerational epic of rich detail, memorable character and indelible plot. This is the sort of big-theme novel that complainers maintain no one is writing any more, an ambitious throwback to an era when novelists more often looked outward than inward for inspirational nourishment.
In Empire Falls, which is set in a Maine town teetering toward oblivion, Russo introduces a cross section of society's also-rans; trapped between a past of minimal opportunity and a future unimaginable as anything better, characters settle for diminished returns on the dreams of their parents. The lay of this fictional land will be familiar to admirers of Russo's previous books about the blue-collar Northeast, including his 1986 debut, Mohawk, and its 1988 sequel, The Risk Pool, as well as 1993's Nobody's Fool and 1997's hilarious Straight Man.
Even if the title Empire Falls (it's also the name of the town) is a bit too dramatic or obvious, the central imagery of the river in this story finds Russo imaginatively engaging and challenging his readers. “Has it ever occurred to you that life is a river, dear boy?” the controlling heiress, responsible for the closing of both the town's mill and its factory, asks the novel's protagonist. “I suspect that's occurred to anyone who's ever seen a river, Mrs. Whiting,” replies Miles Roby. In the novel's prologue, Mrs. Whiting's husband attempts the folly of changing the river's course to suit his whim. The rest of the book explores the possibility of changing the course of one's life, which is perhaps as great a folly—but maybe not, as Miles eventually dares to consider.
Miles, the book's moral compass, abandons a college education that offers a life beyond Empire Falls in order to care for his ailing mother. He comes home to run the Empire Grill for Mrs. Whiting, who has promised him ownership when she dies, though he doubts that she ever will (die, that is) or that the grill would be worth anything if she does. Paralyzed with obligation, he proceeds by numbness rather than nerve, acceding to “the strange decisions a man discovers he's made by not really making them.” Miles' only hope—that his teenage daughter will not find herself trapped in Empire Falls—is marred by irony: Miles' mother vowed the same for him.
The soul of the novel lies in the relationship between Miles and his daughter, Tick, whose high school experiences provide parallels with her father's. Easily the most perceptive character (and the only one whose chapters are written in the present tense rather than the past), Tick wonders whether all adults suffer from “some sort of collective amnesia” or whether they are just “fundamentally dishonest.” Russo's depiction of adolescence is particularly acute, balancing the love that the father and daughter share with the distance that separates them. And while Miles empathizes with his daughter's generation, he understands the limits to his understanding.
“My God, he couldn't help thinking, how terrible it is to be that age, to have emotions so near the surface that the slightest turbulence causes them to boil over,” Miles reflects on the teenage temperament. “That, very simply, was what adulthood must be all about—acquiring the skill to bury things more deeply.” Such turbulence moves from the plot's periphery to its climactic center, as parents who have failed to save themselves face the challenge of saving their children. Derided by his wife as “the human rut,” Miles must accept the responsibility of salvaging his own future if there is any hope for Tick's. He finds the key to that salvation buried deep in the past, discovering the secrets of a town that he thought he'd known as well as his reflection in the mirror.
For all of its traditional pleasures, this is very much a novel of its time, building to a crescendo that calls to mind a contemporary tragedy with a terrifying immediacy. Though the conclusion is as riveting as any modern-day headline, the story's breadth over the span of decades makes it impossible to dismiss its developments as sensationalist plot twists. The narrative progression from borderline farce to bittersweet tragedy, set against the backdrop of a failing factory town, reflects an understanding of what makes seemingly drastic acts not just possible but perhaps inevitable.
Striving to sustain the interplay between the tragic and comic elements of the story, this book doesn't always sustain the graceful precision characteristic of smaller, more carefully wrought novels, ones that concern themselves with interior worlds rather than the world at large. What distinguishes Russo's work is the generosity of spirit he extends to both his characters and the reader. While some novelists satisfy their ambitions by tickling the brain, Russo feeds the hungry heart.
SOURCE: Broun, Bill. “Down Home Folk.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5127 (6 July 2001): 22.
[In the following review of Empire Falls, Broun approves of Russo's ambitious scope but finds the narrative to be overly nostalgic and bland.]
Empire Falls, the latest novel from Richard Russo, is a paean to and satire on small-town America. It works smoothly in the limited terms it sets for itself, offering the guilty pleasure of nostalgia and a cagey stereotyping that refuses to declare itself. The prose is utilitarian, the characters stock, and the ethos inoffensive. None the less, the almost angrily righteous praise the novel is receiving in America right now—most vociferously from newspaper staffers—makes it hard to ignore.
The title refers to the imaginary burg in Maine, where Russo stages his provincial epic, and it is an epically bland place: the poisonous, vibrant heyday of the old economy, rooted in the logging, textile and paper industries and riddled with the anguish of immigrant workers, has long since faded. The nineteenth-century mill buildings standing at the end of the main avenue, deserted and monumental, remain “the undeniable physical embodiment of the town's past”, constantly drawing the gaze and belittling the self. Of course, this is no place for architectural reverie; the new service economy of the Clinton boom years, with its multinational corporations, doughnut shops, fitness clubs and SUVs, has not only failed to heave the long-suffering residents of Empire Falls into happiness, it has spawned a cultural myopia. Anyone who knows even a little about old riverside mill towns of the northeastern United States must admit that the picture the author conjures of a cosy bleakness is well judged.
But Russo is a skilled enough storyteller to know that enervating bleakness has a way of killing drama. So, in the midst of the stagnation he places Miles Roby, an affable underachiever of forty-two who manages the Empire Grill with forbearance, good humour and mordant insight. The restaurant is a throwback to the 1950s greasy spoon, a much-troped slice of mythic Americana. At one point, Miles even recognizes an Edward Hopper tableau in a glimpse of the eatery from outside. Russo tries and fails to mask this conventionalism, an effort flagged when Miles scoffs at the idea of local students who might consider “the grill's wornout, cigarette-burned countertop and wobbly booths ‘honest’ or ‘retro’ or some damn thing”. In fact, that is exactly what we get. The grill is an old-fashioned social centre of town life, although the citizenry have progressed from weaving shirts at the factory to knitting petty troubles, most of which have Miles in the thick of them.
His wife, Janine, has ditched him for the local health-club entrepreneur. He is being messed around by rich, scheming Francine Whiting, who controls much of the town's real estate, including the Grill. His artistic sixteen-year-old daughter, Tick, seems alarmingly vulnerable. His father Max, a conniving, Falstaffian fellow “who could bullshit God himself”, provides yet more family stress. As the novel's many mini-dramas unfold and pressures pile on Miles, the facility with which Russo handles dozens of characters becomes more and more impressive. Before the violent climax, some weighty themes emerge, too: love's complex costs, the lasting effects of abuse within families, and that classic contemporary dilemma, “co-dependency”, in which our masochistic protagonist is well versed, at one point reflecting: “It was the people who enjoyed suffering who had some explaining to do.”
Russo's desire to write a very American contemplation on lost community is admirable; it is a theme which goes right back to Hawthorne and Cooper. But he plays it too safe, an error compounded by technical problems. Many sentences feel not only over-written, but flaccid: “Looking at all the blood, Tick feels her own left arm begin to throb the way it always does in anticipation of hypodermic needles at the doctor's office, and at horror movies when somebody gets slashed.” There is also a peculiar lack of emotional force in some characters, a few verging on the camp; is the Whiting family's scion “C. B.” a distant New England relation of Dallas's J. R.? Empire Falls offers a milkshake-smooth entertainment fix. Its unintentional nostalgia, the shortage of precise and lyrical language and the Hollywoodish familiarity of some of the characters are flaws which conspire to reduce depth. They may not hurt Russo's sales, but they are at least partly what makes the difference between a very good novel and a great one.
SOURCE: Allen, Bruce. “Love, Loss, and Small-Town Economics.” Boston Globe (5 August 2001): D5.
[In the following review, Allen praises Russo's complex characterizations and effective interweaving of multiple plot threads in Empire Falls.]
If you're seeking the perfect summertime read—a roomy, absorbing book in which to wander around and lose yourself for several relaxing days—you probably can't do better than Richard Russo's immensely satisfying fifth novel, Empire Falls.
Russo's credentials as a serious writer who never fails to entertain were firmly established by his bighearted early novels Mohawk (1986) and The Risk Pool (1988), bittersweet comic chronicles of economic decline and moral growth set in the small towns of their author's native upstate New York. Russo achieved an even greater popularity with Nobody's Fool (1993), a dead-on portrayal of a charismatic 60-something wastrel that inspired a deservedly acclaimed Paul Newman film. Its successor, Straight Man (1997), is, if possible, an even funnier delineation of an embattled Everyman: Pennsylvania college professor Hank Devereaux, a likably rumpled mediocrity whose essential sanity and goodness stand him in excellent stead against the rising tide of crises created by brain-dead students, agenda-burdened colleagues, and his importunate extended family.
Empire Falls moves on to inland central Maine (doubtless making use of Russo's current tenure at Colby College, in Waterville). In the book's eponymous municipality, the protagonist, 40-ish Miles Roby, manages the Empire Grill, a forlorn vestige of the business empire founded by the Whiting family, whose once-prosperous textile mill and shirt factory have long since shut down. Where 40 years ago Empire Avenue was bustling with people, cars, and commerce, there's now a dusty little hamlet pervaded by an atmosphere of resignation, depression, and decay.
In the triumphantly compact 50 or so pages that open the book, Russo traces, in italicized passages, the history of both the Whitings' pragmatic appropriation of their territory (cheating the impoverished Robideaux family out of commercially valuable land, diverting the course of the nearby Knox River to deflect floating trash toward others' properties) and the short, unhappy life of Charles Whiting. Charles fell in love with both Mexico and Miles's mother, Grace Roby (then very much married), and suffered through a loveless marriage to the former Francine Robideaux, now a widowed matriarch who literally looks down on Empire Falls (and on Miles, to whom she has vaguely “promised” the grill when she dies) from her lavish house high above both the town and the river.
Flashbacks to Miles's childhood and earlier years are seamlessly juxtaposed with the novel's catapulting present action, which takes the form of ongoing confrontations among its several major characters. Of these there are no fewer than 18, by my count, each of whom is vividly sketched and—in a feat of empathy matched by very few living novelists—given a legitimate and compelling claim on the reader's fascinated attention.
There's Miles's soon-to-be-ex-wife, Janine, for example, who has left him for the annoyingly peppy “Silver Fox” Walt Comeau, proprietor of a health club that has helped Janine shed 60 pounds, along with Miles, and build a fine new self-image.
Other characters keep dropping in at odd points—just as they might in real life—at the grill, where we also meet Miles's younger brother David (a disabled bachelor who's suspected of dealing marijuana), the beautiful waitress Charlene (whom Miles has loved unrequitedly since he was a teenager), and the binge-drinking dishwasher Buster. There are also neighborhood regulars such as newspaper reporter Horace Weymouth, the saturnine resident cynic who delivers many of his better one-liners whenever the Silver Fox shows up and holds court, and Miles's father, Max Roby, a frisky senile delinquent who thrives on mischievous antisocial behavior and subsists on occasional odd jobs and “loans” (which are never repaid) from Miles, who accepts just about any indignity that will keep the aging reprobate at a comfortable distance.
Though the grill may be considered the novel's center, Russo allows action to radiate outward to several other crucial locales. At the Whiting mansion, for instance, to which Miles is summoned for his annual “State of the Grill” meeting with his employer, Francine Whiting lives in regal semi-seclusion with her adult daughter Cindy, who has been crippled since a childhood encounter with a hit-and-run driver (who, it is suggested, may have been Max) and who is still shyly, hopelessly in love with the unresponsive Miles.
The tension between risk and timidity is explored in a more crucial way at the novel's other important location: the Empire Falls high school, where Miles's teenage daughter Christina (“Tick”) is warily edging toward maturity. She has also become unhappily acquainted with John Voss, a sullen fellow student whose own family history is revealed in the novel's explosive (some will say unduly melodramatic) climax and denouement.
What's most impressive about Empire Falls is the dexterity with which Russo interweaves its strong and complex plot with literally dozens of unerringly precise, often laugh-out-loud funny thumbnail sketches of its many characters in conflict, collusion, or eruption. And he has a remarkable gift for nailing in a perfect summary phrase a character trait (like Max's “cheerful, sensible cowardice in the face of unpleasantness”) or a crucial narrative or thematic point (such as the eventual realization “that John Voss was a tragically abused boy, that something in him was broken and that simple kindness might not be enough to fix it”).
The world of Empire Falls is at least distantly related to those of John Cheever's “Wapshot” novels and J. F. Powers's immaculately human stories of priests' lives, as well as the more recent community-oriented fiction of Anne Tyler and Jon Hassler. Russo is indisputably one of them: an unpretentious master of fictional technique whose deeper wisdom expresses itself in the distinctive fallibility, decency, humor, and grace of the indisputably, irresistibly real people he puts on the page.
SOURCE: Hower, Edward. “Small-Town Dreams: Disappointment Haunts the Characters in Richard Russo's Depiction of Life in a Hapless Maine Backwater Town.” World and I 16, no. 10 (October 2001): 243.
[In the following review, Hower notes that Russo strikes a good balance between reality and morality in Empire Falls, arguing that the novel's “main strength is its skillfully developed characters”]
In art museums, people crowd around pictures of demons, like the ones in Hieronymus Bosch's grotesque landscapes, yet walk right by visions of radiant angels, hardly pausing to yawn. Evil is often a lot more interesting than virtue—in literature as well as art. It's not easy for writers to make their good characters as compelling as their villains, but Richard Russo manages this skillfully in his new novel, Empire Falls. His good-hearted everyman hero, Miles, runs the diner in a small, decaying Maine town and is just as enjoyable to read about as the bad guys (and women) who test his integrity.
American writers—from Mark Twain to Sherwood Anderson to Garrison Keillor—have always made small towns dramatic settings for conflicts between corruption and decency, probably because people live more public lives in small settings. In the old mill town of Empire Falls, people have known each other's families for generations, and a talented writer like Russo can make us believe that we know them all too. He has specialized in small-town dramas: three of his previous books—Mohawk,Risk Pool, and Nobody's Fool—were about working-class people in parts of rural upstate New York that the modern world has all but left behind. Nobody's Fool became a film starring Paul Newman, who played the irresponsible but lovable lout Sully, the kind of bad-news, out-of-luck old guy who's too canny and stubborn to go under, though his time was up years ago. He's not exactly a villain, but he's such an outrageous outlaw that it's hard not to hope he'll outsmart his betters, especially when they're conventional and boring.
In Risk Pool, a much darker book than Mohawk or Nobody's Fool, the no-good father was a tragic character; we watched him spiral out of control, damaging himself and everyone around him as he fell. Such compelling outlaws are scattered through the pages of Empire Falls, as well. Here, though, Russo sets himself the difficult task of making the mildest and least glamorous of his townspeople the most compelling. It's not so much what Miles does but what he gradually discovers about himself and the role his family has played in the town's history that makes him such a fascinating character.
In Russo's other books, the forces that have caused small towns to decline have been left vague—time has merely forgotten them. In Empire Falls, though, the upper class (which still owns everything) is as well defined as the working classes that have done the bidding of the old mill-owning families. We get a sense of the historical processes that have led to the town's decline: the pollution of its river, the exploitation of its citizens, and the abandonment of the area once it has ceased to be profitable.
At the top of the social pyramid is Mrs. Francine Whiting, powerful widow of one of the most ineffectual of the robber barons who have run the area for over a century. Because Mrs. Whiting has helped his family over the years, Miles feels obligated to manage part of her property, the town's only restaurant. Only when he learns why she has done so—by no means out of the goodness of her heart—does he begin to wriggle free of her control.
Mrs. Whiting is a formidable and intriguing witch: cold, manipulative, devious, and much stronger, we learn in a series of flashbacks, than her late husband, Charlie, or C. B., ever was. Charlie, who has killed himself under mysterious circumstances by the time the book's main story begins, would rather have lived in Mexico with his mistress than in Maine trying to run his family's businesses. He sometimes remarks that “he always had the last word in all differences of opinion with his wife, and that—two words, actually—was, ‘Yes, dear.’” Like other Whiting men, Charlie is drawn “toward the one woman in the world who would regard making [him] utterly miserable as her life's noble endeavor.”
When he dies, his wife places a monument over his grave “to insure that her husband stayed right where he was.” Charlie was the last of the old order:
Compared to the monuments marking the graves of the other Whiting males, C. B.'s was the runt of the litter. … Its being significantly smaller gave the impression that his stone alone had not grown after being planted, as if the corpses of his predecessors had already sucked all the nutrients out of the soil.
With C. B. gone, Mrs. Whiting occupies her time keeping a tight grip on all the townspeople's lives. Having manipulated Miles' mother into taking care of her disabled daughter, Cindy, she tries to get Miles to marry the unhappy young woman. When his wife, Janine, leaves him, the time seems perfect, but Miles drags his feet. Timmy, Mrs. Whiting's cat (who is actually female, despite the name), seems even more impatient than her owner is, since she scratches and bites him every time he visits the Whiting estate.
Timmy, the witch's familiar, becomes one of the book's many marvelously comic minor characters. “Oh, it's not just you, dear boy,” Mrs. Whiting tells Miles after one of the cat's attacks. “She treats everyone who isn't family with the same exquisite malice. She dug a furrow the length of the mayor's forearm just last week didn't you, sweetheart?” Wisely, Miles takes the cat's hostility as a warning to keep his distance from Mrs. Whiting until he has fully understood her motives.
Mrs. Whiting's henchman among the town's working class is Jimmy Minty, the local cop. On her payroll as well as the town's, he lets himself into people's houses with his skeleton key for a little additional income now and then. “Steal small,” he remembers the words of his father. “Remember ‘the bother principle’ … they won't bother you over little things.”
His father also told him, “Ambition … it'll kill you every time,” and Jimmy has taken this to heart. “Mr. Empire Falls? That's me,” he tells Miles. Jimmy never left town to try to do better for himself, as Miles did when he went to college for three years. When people look at Jimmy, they see someone who reassures them that trying to escape the provincial life isn't worth the trouble. This is why he feels comfortable with most of the town's citizens and vice versa. But with Miles he feels stupid and inferior; unlike Jimmy, Miles sees the world as a “place for people to yearn for their heart's impossible desires, for those desires to become entrenched in defiance of logic, plausibility, and even the passage of time.”
Miles' father, Max, hasn't much more vision than Jimmy, yet he's more substantial than the cop, whom he dislikes as much as his son does. Max is a bridge between the hopeless and the idealistic people of Empire Falls. An irresponsible, self-centered housepainter who cadges drinks and shames his wife, he remains filled with energy, determination, and a refusal to give in to the apparent futility of life in a dying town. He comes and goes as he pleases, traveling to jobs where he paints people's windows shut and takes off with the money before his shoddy work can be discovered.
Max is a familiar father figure in Russo's fiction, a feisty old guy not unlike Sully in Nobody's Fool. It's hard to dislike anyone who thumbs his nose so boldly at both the town's conventional middle-class citizens and the rich and powerful. He exasperates Miles, who is too good-hearted to reject him. Miles' teenage daughter, Tick, also feels affection for her grandfather. When his beard is full of crumbs, which is a lot of the time, Tick cleans them off and Max smiles in gratitude. Seeing this, Miles suspects that his father is “basically a lower primate. He enjoyed being groomed.”
It's because of Tick, Miles says, that he clings to the security of running the Empire Grill. He wants to maintain their stable home and close relationship, especially since her mother has moved in with the dim, middle-aged hunk who runs the local health club. Janine is one of the book's many comic characters, a woman who keeps refusing to see the disasters she's creating for herself until it's too late. Russo treats all his characters with compassion, however, and gives Janine credit for trying to change—she does lose sixty pounds—and for understanding how life in a small town can destroy some people. As she watches the cheerleaders at a high school football game, she imagines what life may be like for them and the players by whom they'll soon be pregnant. “How swiftly life would descend,” she thinks.
“First the panic that maybe they'd have to go through it alone, then the quick marriage to prevent that grim fate, followed by relentless house and car payments and doctors' bills and all the rest. The joy they took in this rough sport would gradually mutate. [The boys would] gravitate to bars … to get away from these same girls and then the children neither they nor their wives would be clever and independent enough to prevent. There would be the sports channel on the tavern's wide-screen TV and plenty of beer. … A few of the more adventurous or desperate wives would … meet another of these boy-men … out at the Lamplighter Motor Court for a little taste of the road not taken, only to discover that it was pretty much the same shabby, two-lane blacktop they'd been traveling all along.”
A HUMOROUS VISION
Russo's vision of small-town life, often bleak in his previous books, is tempered with a great deal of satirical and affectionate humor here. Timmy's inventive aggression and Janine's pratfalls provide running gags throughout the novel. Walt is constantly trying to compensate Miles for stealing his wife by providing screwball business tips, which Miles has the sense to ignore. When Walt finally marries Janine, he has to borrow money for the wedding ring (from Mrs. Whiting, who else?). The ceremony is held in his health club with the yoga mats leaned up against the walls, “which suggested that some of the revelers might be driving bumper cars.”
Russo generates comedy through numerous other inhabitants of Empire Falls, including Charlene, the buxom “full service waitress,” who “never shirked from reminding people that there was no excuse for wasting food when other people were going hungry.” She doesn't mind interrupting local professors who, no matter how erudite their conversations, still tip her like all the other male customers, “according to cup size.”
Then there is Mrs. Rodriguez, the high school art teacher who browbeats her students into studying her favorite painter, an artist who hosts a local-access TV show called Painting for Relaxation. She keeps her bowling-pin-shaped husband cowed with her “sense of thwarted superiority,” but Tick, like her father, sees through the teacher's pretensions.
Officer Jimmy Minty, corrupt as he is, can also be a figure of fun. In a flashback, he recalls waking up after a drunken party at a college friend's fraternity house, finding himself covered with tiny cuts, worrying that he might have murdered someone during the night. When he discovers the cuts are merely from an exploded lightbulb, he's very relieved.
He'd planned on applying to the Maine Police Academy, and it wouldn't look good on his application if he'd gone and killed some girl at that party, even if he explained that he was drunk at the time and didn't remember. It had taken him the better part of a year to come up with the police academy idea, and he didn't want to have to start all over, even with the leisure of a lengthy prison sentence to develop other career possibilities.
Russo's previous novels have been criticized for meandering plots and overly complicated subplots. In Empire Falls, the to-ing and fro-ing of his characters around town seems an appropriate substitute for a linear plot. As they meet and talk and move on, a sense of claustrophobia develops in a setting where people indeed sometimes seem to be driving bumper cars and bouncing off walls. One plotline—that of an outcast high school boy whom Tick and Miles befriend—skirts uncomfortably close to melodrama at the story's end, adding a tinge of tragedy that seems incongruous.
The book's main strength is its skillfully developed characters. Russo's art lies in the humor and compassion with which he creates them all, especially the thoughtful, long-suffering manager of the Empire Grill. Miles treats the pitiful Cindy Whiting with great kindness, despite her mother's machinations, as he does everyone else in Empire Falls, even the wife who has left him but keeps returning to the restaurant for his advice. His close relationship with Tick and his refusal to judge weaker people harshly amount to a quiet but appealing strength. The way he constantly struggles to maintain his compassion and integrity in the face of conventionality, defeatism, and all the evils of small-town life makes him a continually engaging character.
Richard Russo's canvas may be small, but he has written a big book, populated by a wide variety of complex, fascinating characters. Empire Falls is unusual in its ability to champion moral virtue and to keep it as compelling—and constantly amusing—as the forces of corruption that try in vain to defeat it.
SOURCE: Epstein, Joseph. “Surfing the Novel.” Commentary 113, no. 1 (January 2002): 32-7.
[In the following excerpt, Epstein laments the difficulty of identifying new literary talent and, singling out Jonathan Franzen and Russo as notable exceptions, provides a favorable review of Empire Falls.]
Reading novels has so long been a habit of mine that by now it qualifies as a full-blown addiction. My modus operandi is to alternate between the new and the old; frequently I have bookmarks in both simultaneously, hoping to keep up with the latest offerings while attempting to fill in some of the many gaps in my reading before I depart the planet. To this day, I feel a tug of guilt over never having read Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale (1908), though I hope to get around to it presently. Onward and outward.
When it comes to older novels, my principle of selection has been set by the test of time, that soundest of all critics. A much trickier matter is to decide which contemporary fiction merits attention. One can go by the reviews; or by having seen a novelist's work in a magazine one trusts; or by the general buzz in the weekly supplements or the intellectual journals; or by whim and fancy. But the supply itself seems endless.
As a reader, I am in the position of a man on his couch, remote control in hand, contemplating the hundreds of channels available for viewing. Click—the English novel: Amis, Barnes, McEwan, Banville, Byatt, Drabble, Lanchester. Click—the Asian and third-world novel: Achebe, Ishiguro, Rushdie, Roy, Pamuk. Click—the Latin American novel: Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, Cortázar, Fuentes, Paz. Click, click, click—the major American networks: Bellow, Roth, Updike, Mailer, Pynchon, DeLillo, Munro, Lurie, Ozick, Irving. Click—the Discovery channel of younger novelists: Wallace, Goodman, Gurganus, Simpson, Chabon. And on and on into the night.
What am I looking for here? Nothing much, and yet everything: amusement, an expanded knowledge of how other people live—and lived—and, chiefly, those truths of the heart that, for complicated reasons, are otherwise hidden from us and unavailable anywhere else but in literature. In short, a few honorable writers who come close to capturing and conveying life as it really is, who are dans le vrai.
The sheer plenitude of what is on offer, presumably a blessing, can also operate as a discouragement. This phenomenon is not entirely new. In the issues of the London Times Literary Supplement of March 19 and April 2, 1914, under the title “The Younger Generation,” Henry James, then nearing the close of his own career, took up the matter in his characteristically complex manner. He began by bemoaning—most mellifluously—the want of serious criticism and the damaging effect this had on the creation of fiction itself. For criticism, James had no doubt, was at the heart of “the very education of our imaginative life; and thanks to it the general question of how to refine, and of why certain things refine more and most, … becomes for us of the last importance.” Yet the sheer number of new books was even then causing criticism to shirk its responsibility. “The flood of ‘production,’” James wrote, “has so inordinately exceeded the activity of control that this latter anxious agent, first alarmed but then indifferent, has been forced backwards out of the gate, leaving the contents of the reservoir to boil and evaporate.”
So, too, and a thousand times more, it seems in our day. We have among us acknowledged masters that no one seems to read, along with young geniuses whose achievements, declared daily, weekly, or monthly, go untested by critical minds. Nearly ten years ago, shortly before the inauguration of President Clinton, I was called by the American correspondent of the London Daily Telegraph to comment on the work of Maya Angelou, who was scheduled to read a poem at the ceremony. I said I could not do so, because I had not read her. Then could I supply the name of someone else who had? I confessed I knew no such person. But, queried the correspondent, since I was a literary man, and presumably had literary friends, how did I account for this? I answered by saying that I thought Maya Angelou was not actually for reading, but instead for being assigned to high-school and college students to show that their teachers' hearts were in the right place.
I wonder if the same is not true of the novels of Toni Morrison, who has won the Pulitzer, Nobel, and just about every other prize, but whose work has scarcely (with one or two notable exceptions) been subjected to serious criticism. I have never met a reader who has derived pleasure from the novels of Joyce Carol Oates, yet she continues to publish novel after novel, at a rate slightly faster than most office temps can type. John Updike has by now published more than 40 books of fiction; some are quite good, some disappointing; but who reads them, and who, besides their graphomaniacal author, needs them all? Meanwhile, more and more novels continue to be written, published, stocked in the major chains, awarded prizes, turned into paperbacks, made into movies. The flood, the boil, the evaporation, in Henry James's deluvian metaphor, roil on.
Novelists' reputations today seem to be established largely through the mechanisms of marketing and the buddy system: by their blurbs shall ye know them. Everyone who writes a novel hopes to bang the gong of large-scale success—a huge advance, a movie deal, a high print-run. “A good writer is a rich writer,” Lewis Lapham has ruefully remarked, “and a rich writer a good writer.” The line between serious and unserious, between highbrow and middlebrow, between literary and commercial is increasingly blurred. The downmarket writer Stephen King now publishes in the New Yorker; were Ezra Pound alive, he might, who knows, go on the Late Show with David Letterman, or at least on Larry King Live. Yet this great fluidity has hardly improved the general quality of things. The English literary historian Derwent May put it succinctly in his recent history of the Times Literary Supplement: “No outstanding new poet or novelist appeared on the scene in the 90's, as far as we can tell.”
Which is not to say that there have been no candidates. Among novelists in this country who emerged in the 1990's, two at the moment stand out: Jonathan Franzen and Richard Russo. Franzen has published two previous novels, is forty-two and was born in the Midwest; Russo, who has published four previous novels, is fifty-two and was born in upstate New York. Each has lately produced what is called a “break-out” novel: a thick book that comes at the reader with all literary guns firing. This is the book that, if it succeeds, will put its author on the intellectual map, jump him up to the ranks of the established names. In Franzen's case [The Corrections], it appears to have succeeded. …
Jonathan Franzen is not Gustave Flaubert, except perhaps in his dreams, and I suspect Richard Russo will forgive me for saying that neither is he Leo Tolstoy. But there is indeed a freshness of feeling to Russo's Empire Falls that is entirely absent from The Corrections and that evokes, in contemporary terms, precisely what Arnold was getting at.
This is all the more impressive since the mise-en-scène of Russo's novel is itself almost unrelievedly bleak. A town in Maine that sits on a polluted river and has lost its industry and its hope, Empire Falls is not merely in danger of going down the crapper but, at one point late in the novel, is actually compared by Miles Roby, the book's central character, to the very thing down which it is headed: “This crapper, it occurred to Miles [inspecting broken plumbing], was his hometown in a nutshell. People who lived in Empire Falls were so used to misfortune that they'd become resigned to more of the same.”
The dying town of Empire Falls is controlled by the widow of a dynastic family, the Whitings, whose men have displayed a knack for marrying women they soon learn to despise, to the point of longing to kill them. As for the other townspeople, some of them are still there because staying even after the jobs left “was easier and less scary than leaving,” while some stayed out of pride, because their parents and grandparents had lived in Empire Falls and because they did not want to be driven away by the greed of outsiders. Among them all, the future is the least used tense. “Ambition,” the father of a local cop liked to tell his son: “It'll kill you every time.”
Miles Roby's own father is an itinerant and highly inept housepainter (“By the time they'd discover his shoddy work in Boothbay, he'd be painting someone else's windows shut in Bar Harbor”), a drinking man, and a sponge whose two-word philosophy of life is, “So what?” Miles himself, in his early forties when the novel begins, is about to be divorced and is the father of a talented but psychologically fragile adolescent daughter. He is out of shape, no great sexual athlete, a man who left college to tend to his dying mother and never subsequently escaped the trap of his hometown.
This mother was a saintly woman who believed that we are all put on earth to make things more fair. “We have a duty in this world, Miles. You see that, don't you?” she told him when he was still young. “We have a moral duty.” Dying of cancer in her forties, she has left Miles with a strong case of terminal decency.
At the heart of the plot of Empire Falls is the mysterious connection between Miles and the wealthy widow Francine Whiting, for whom he runs a bar and grill. She both encourages and taunts him; he lives in simultaneous thrall and contempt of her. What the novel slowly reveals is that Miles's mother once had a love affair with Mrs. Whiting's long-dead husband—an act about which his mother feels forever remorseful while the quite remorseless Mrs. Whiting prefers, instead, revenge, served cold and parsimoniously and taken out, decades after the affair, on her husband's lover's son.
Empire Falls is an intricately plotted novel, with lots of back story to fill in the earlier lives of the main characters. The intricacy of the plot allows Russo to arrange things so that the unpredictable is made to seem entirely plausible, which is one of the things that good fiction accomplishes. But what gives Empire Falls gravity is its persuasive staging of the struggle of a decent man to do the right thing, which means to put those he loves before himself. “Her heroes may be insipid,” Virginia Woolf once wrote of the novels of Jane Austen, “but think of her fools!” Fools aplenty there are in this novel, but in Miles Roby, Richard Russo has created a hero not in the least insipid. Because of this, Empire Falls possesses the element that is entirely missing from The Corrections: a moral center.
A fine equanimity pervades Empire Falls. This no doubt has much to do with its author's not having set out to mock his characters or to show the height of his superiority through the depth of his disdain. But it is far from a solemn book. A wry comedy animates plot and characters alike. “You're kind and patient and forgiving and generous,” Miles is told by a waitress at his restaurant, “and you don't seem to understand that these qualities can be really annoying in a man, no matter what the ladies' magazines say.” According to the same waitress, customers tend to tip in proportion to bra cup size. Miles himself remarks that his years in college, away from town, were like being in a witness protection program. But beyond the comedy, Russo is implicated in the lives of these characters in a way that implicates us, his readers: his major effort is to understand them—and to understand that this understanding, too, has its limits.
This is a novel in which God figures. Miles Roby, a former altar boy, still goes to Mass. His manner of tithing is to paint the decaying exterior of the town's Catholic church for nothing. He believes in God, though prefers to think of Him as all-loving rather than all-knowing. One gathers his position here is shared by Richard Russo. Understanding, in this novel, is in the nature of the human struggle, and, like that struggle itself, is never complete on this earth.
Want to make God smile, an old joke has it, tell him your plans. Life, or so this novel instructs, is immensely complicated for people who wish to live it other than selfishly: an obstacle course in which desire is every day set in an unending match against duty. The power of Empire Falls lies in its capacity to return us to this daily scene of moral conflict in a manner that is genuine, gripping—and entirely believable.
“If making things prettier than they are is a lie,” says Miles Roby's sixteen-year-old daughter, Tick, “then making them seem uglier is another.” She is speaking about painting, but the same goes for novelists. The point is to get those “things” as nearly right as possible, to get as close as one can to being dans le vrai. This is never easy, but one of the ways a novelist may know he is at least on the right track is when neither Oprah nor the committee of the National Book Awards singles him out for honors.
In a scene in Empire Falls set in one of the town's working-class bars, a moper at the end of the bar, forced to watch Oprah Winfrey on television, complains: “If we got to listen to a fat woman talk, can't she at least be a white one?” To which the barkeeper, a Polish woman in her sixties, replies: “Oprah's smarter than any five white men you can name, Otis.” And more influential, she might have added, than any twenty literary critics you never heard of.
SOURCE: Jacobs, Rita D. Review of Empire Falls, by Richard Russo. World Literature Today 76, no. 2 (spring 2002): 153.
[In the following review of Empire Falls, Jacobs praises Russo's characterizations and prose but faults the novel for excessive length and abrupt resolution.]
First, I have to admit I am an unabashed Richard Russo fan. Especially in The Risk Pool and Straight Man, Russo has written quintessential novels about somewhat miniaturized subjects—growing up in a small, undistinguished town with a ne'er-do-well father, suffering through the petty squabbles of an English Department—and has done it with grace, humor, and a good deal of literary skill. A distinctly twentieth-century local colorist, Russo uses rich detail and irony to craft terrifically satisfying novels. This is not to demean the importance of his comments on society and its ills or on the human condition; it's just that he situates his trenchant comments in small domains.
That brings us to Empire Falls, the novel and the name of the small town in Maine where Russo's newest hero, Miles Roby, lives with his fractured family and his ghosts. Divorced, but not because he desired the break, he is left with the Empire Grill, which he runs but doesn't own, and a longing to see his daughter Christina, known as Tick, grow up with the drive and ability to escape the town. His father, Max, is a sometimes amusing, sometimes dangerous rascal. At one point he runs off with the parish car and the town's elderly and demented priest, Father Tom, to do a little carousing in Key West. Miles, by way of explaining his father's behavior to the younger priest who asks, “He's steal from God?” says of the father: “He's pretty fearless where God is concerned. I can't tell whether he's a genuine atheist or simply believes in a God who's lost His grasp of the details.”
The reader could use a bit more of the irreverent in Miles, whom we root for because he seems to know about the “heart's impossible desires” despite his own inertia. His cohort consists mainly of the many men—including the ex-Mrs. Roby's new fiancé, Walt Comeau—who have the time to spend sitting at the Grill's counter, gossiping and playing cards. Two of the more intriguing characters who also populate this place are Miles's brother David and the longtime object of Miles's sexual fantasies, Charlene Gardiner, now a waitress at the Grill.
The dowager empress of the town is Mrs. Whiting, the widow of C. B. Whiting, who owns virtually all of Empire Falls, including the Grill and the defunct mill. The mill and later Mrs. Whiting herself once employed Miles Roby's sainted late mother. The Whiting power in town is felt in myriad ways both financial and emotional, and at times it seems as though this is a storybook town where an evil stepmother reigns.
At one point Tick observes that everyone in town has secrets except her father, yet the rather transparent premise behind this book is Miles Roby's coming to terms with past events and their long-term psychological detritus. His recognition of his secret knowledge is pieced together by the reader through memories of his childhood which Russo presents fairly obviously and a bit heavy-handedly in italicized sections throughout the novel.
Russo's prose is lucid and sometimes even glitters. Yet, although one can certainly relish the novel for its wonderful characterizations, the ambience, and the incisive depictions of human entanglements, it goes on for too long, and when the surprises come at the end, they feel abrupt and forced. At the same time, Russo is always worth reading, and if this is not his best novel, so be it. It is still an entertaining and often enlightening read.
SOURCE: Case, Kristen. “Pulsating with Real Life.” New Leader 85, no. 4 (July-August 2002): 30-1.
[In the following review, Case praises the life and vitality of the stories in The Whore's Child and Other Stories.]
The short story's rise to prominence in American letters must be at least partly a consequence of its usefulness to English teachers. Not only is it easier than the novel to “workshop” (to use a questionable term in its most dubious form), it is easier to teach. I remember peering over my freshman English professor's shoulder at the contents page of his copy of the anthology we were using and seeing his handwritten notes alongside each title. “Voice” was scrawled next to Raymond Carver's “Where I'm Calling From,” “Irony” next to Albert Camus' “The Guest.”
The pieces in Richard Russo's first short fiction collection [The Whore's Child and Other Stories] also illustrate the point. One can imagine a great, meaty seminar discussion about that venerable duo Art and Life arising from the title story, in which an elderly nun in a fiction class submits a harrowing and decidedly unfashionable memoir. An ace paper could be written on the many varieties of real and metaphorical contamination in “Poison,” the tale of two authors born in the shadow of the same toxin-spewing mill.
Russo packs a great deal into his stories, and clearly relishes the idea of their being unpacked. Portentous images—a hypodermic needle, an inflamed post-operative incision—abound, pleading for interpretation. The author's skill, especially his ability to create physical and emotional terrain so real you could map it, is such that the pedagogical exercises would in fact be worth any reader's time.
Russo's reversing the now-typical American career trajectory by publishing his initial story collection after establishing his reputation as a novelist is indicative of where his strengths lie. In full-length narratives like Nobody's Fool and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls, he captures not merely the peculiarities of place—the grammatical fallacies of supermarket signs, the bends in the course of a river—but the way these details shape lives. Because this involves accumulation and repetition, it is harder to do in the restricted space of a short story. While the novel generally achieves verisimilitude through its expansiveness, its capacity to accommodate the ABBA songs and beer nuts of everyday life, the short story must rely on elision, allowing specifics to suggest a larger, hidden whole. Russo handles this transition masterfully, however, particularly in “The Farther You Go,” a brilliant evocation of the intimacy and alienation of family lift.
The landscape of these stories will be familiar to readers of the author's previous books. Although “Joy Ride” takes its prepubescent protagonist and his wayward mother from Maine to Arizona, Russo remains rooted in New England. Some of his observations about the Northeast have been made before—that it is a land of unfulfilled dreams and hard truths and dying industry—but his characters, often aware of the clichés they inhabit, breathe life into those commonplaces. Portia, the sarcastic young wile of a writer/professor in “Poison,” expresses one of Russo's favorite themes when she says of her husband's moth-eaten sweater, “It means he's a proletarian writer laboring in a sweatshop of tough, honest prose. It means he comes from an ugly mill town and that's who he is and who he always will be.”
Russo's New England is a psychological locale as much as a physical one. In “Buoyancy,” the story of an aging couple on a weekend excursion to Martha's Vineyard, a ravaged panorama symbolizes their wounded marriage:
For some time they'd been sliding from lush green into sepia, summer into autumn. Everywhere there were downed trees, slender birches and lindens caught up on power lines, trunks chainsawed into cross sections and stacked on the roadside, broken limbs, piled up next to gray-shingled houses. Even trees that had survived the hurricane were damaged, their trunks stripped naked and pink under the early September sky.
In “Buoyancy” and “Monhegan Light,” the beautiful New England coastline can be menacing as well, its blinding light and sharp edges corresponding to painful realizations. Never, in Russo's fiction, is escape from this difficult territory truly possible, and it seems fitting that the end of “Joy Ride” finds mother and son on a plane heading back East.
The characters that fill the stories—the frustrated wives, hapless husbands and confused, lonesome children—will also feel familiar to anyone who has read Russo's novels. In “The Farther You Go,” arguably the best story in the collection, a father recovering from prostate cancer reluctantly intervenes in the marriage of his troubled and difficult daughter. After driving his son-in-law to the airport and buying him a one-way ticket to Pittsburgh, Hank, the protagonist, considers using the ticket himself to go visit a woman with whom he once had a brief affair:
Odds are that she's no longer in Pittsburgh. She's probably married again by now, not that it matters, really. I only wanted to see her at some restaurant with half-moon booths where I might tell her about my surgery. For some reason I'm convinced that my brush with mortality would matter to her and that I'd feel better after confessing to someone that I fear the nausea, that I consider it prophetic, a sign that some terrible malignancy remains. … Maybe she would be afraid for me in the way I want someone to be afraid.
Baffled by his daughter's unhappiness and unable to tell anyone (least of all his wife) about his own, Hank imagines intimacy with outsiders—his son-in-law, his former lover—before realizing “where [his] loyalties must be, where they have always been.” The power of Hank's connection to his wife and daughter coexists with a terrible alienation from them, and both are depicted with haunting precision.
The author adopts the perspective of a 10-year-old boy watching the dissolution of his parents' marriage in “The Mysteries of Linwood Hart.” Divided into sections with headings like “Objects,” “Enemies” and “Cost,” the story takes us into Linwood's universe and its shifting constellations of adults. The mysteries in question—sex, money, adult relations—come into increasingly sharper focus as the narrative progresses. Linwood gradually manages to make some sense out of his mother's relationship to his baseball coach and his father's new residence above the barbershop. In the process the slow piecing together of knowledge that marks the movement out of childhood is vividly portrayed.
Occasionally, Russo overplays his hand by seeming to lecture us on his own fiction. At the close of “The Mysteries of Linwood Hart,” for example, he ties together the boy's coming of age with the final sentence: “It was into this entirely different world that Linwood now fell asleep, sadly grateful that he was not and never had been, nor ever would be, its center.” That is a decent summary of the story's thematic thrust, but it gives the game away: The bewilderment of childhood was never so cleanly resolved. Russo does a disservice to his own rich and complex tale by tying a ribbon around it. Similarly, “The Whore's Child” and “Monhegan Light” are a bit too classroom-friendly, with symbols (fire, lighthouse) scattered like breadcrumbs for students to follow.
The flaw does not diminish Russo's accomplishment, though. The seven stories that make up The Whore's Child pulsate with real life.
SOURCE: Heinegg, Peter. “You Still Can't Get There from Here.” America 187, no. 12 (21 October 2002): 26.
[In the following review, Heinegg compliments Russo's deadpan comedic timing in The Whore's Child and Other Stories.]
Right beneath the title, the jacket of The Whore's Child displays a bare black cross; and we soon discover why. The subject of the title story is, of all things, an aging nun whose beloved absent father turns out to have been her (hated) mother's pimp. What the embittered Sister Veronique has in common with most of the cast in the remaining six tales (or novellas) in this collection is her more or less permanent, but wholly un-redemptive pain. Not for nothing was this homely, engaging novelist raised a Catholic in Johnstown, N.Y. Richard Russo's heroes tend to be bewildered boys whose parents' failed marriages get even more dismal when, faute de mieux, they reconcile (“Joy Ride,” “The Mysteries of Linwood Hart”), or husbands who are either divorced (“Poison”), unfaithful (“Buoyancy” and “The Farther You Go”) or cuckolded (“Monhegan Light”).
Like Russo himself, some of his newest male characters may have escaped their bleak hometowns in the Rust Belt (he lives in Maine, and they're New Englanders), but not their bleak, unpicturesque destiny. “Man hands on misery to man,” as Philip Larkin said; and so in “The Farther You Go,” Hank, still aching from prostate surgery, is goaded by his cranky wife, Faye, into driving their abusive son-in-law Russell to the nearest airport and shipping him as far away as the ＄200 left in June's checking account will allow. (At the last moment Hank relents and gives Russell back his car, to go God knows where.)
Sheer formulaic misery? By no means. For Russo, whose career has been moving from strength to strength, with Mohawk (1986), The Risk Pool (1988), Nobody's Fool (1993), Straight Man (1997) and the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Empire Falls (2001), is also a brilliant deadpan comic writer. His protagonists all know, or eventually learn, that they are fools—and just how little they can do about it. Russo has progressed from working-class poverty through academic respectability (the University of Illinois at Carbondale) to the affluence of literary stardom; and every step along the way seems to have enriched his social depth perception. The retired Professor Snow in “Buoyancy,” who has been replaced by a trendy ideological geek, suspects that the latter's triumphant reception means his own colleagues “secretly shared his dubious opinion of his life's work.” So “at the question-and-answer session following the young man's presentation (on ‘Gender Otherness and Othering’),” Snow asks “whether students could apply his courses toward their foreign-language requirement.” Be they fading authors, disgusted wives or discarded husbands, about the only half-reliable weapon left to Russo's angry souls is their sharp tongue.
In a typical scene, 10-year-old Linwood Hart's father (separated from his wife) takes his son out to eat.
They were no sooner seated in Rigazzi's than Lin's favorite waitress, the one who enjoyed giving his father a hard time, came over. “I was beginning to think you'd died, Slick,” she said; one hand on an ample hip, “You never come in anymore.”
His father pretended to read the menu, “Well, Jolene, I keep running into people I don't like,” his father said, indicating the far end of the restaurant where Lin's uncle Brian sat eating spaghetti with his family.
“Speaking of which,” Jolene said, “he wants to know if you'd like to join them.”
“Yeah?” his father said. “Tell him I know how much he'd like to spoil my dinner, but I'm not going to let him.”
“I'll say no such thing,” she assured him.
“Suit yourself,” his father said amiably. “I'll have the—”
“Rigatoni and sausage,” Jolene finished for him.
“Rigatoni and sausage,” his father confirmed as she wrote it down.
Now she raised an eyebrow in Lin's direction. When he opened his mouth to speak, she said, “Spaghetti and meatballs,” wrote that down and then snatched the two menus. “I could make other predictions, too, but I'd just depress myself.”
Sure enough, minutes later the irascible Hart brothers are duking it out in the parking lot.
Such mayhem, petty or otherwise, is philosophically inevitable in Russo's world; since, as he wrote about a year ago in The New York Times Book Review, “having turned God out of the picture,” moderns have nowhere to look “for wisdom and purpose,” except an extremely dubious and contradictory source: themselves. All the evidence suggests—no, shouts—that this isn't going to work; but humans plunge merrily (or miserably) ahead anyhow, while Richard Russo, calmly grieving, self-mocking observer-participant in the rout, reminds us how it's going.
There are no stylistic pyrotechnics, a la John Updike, no convoluted allegories of ego, a la Philip Roth, just quirky, meandering, anticlimactic narratives with perfect-pitch dialogue about a bunch of ordinary male, female and pre-adolescent losers, who happen to inhabit certain neighborhoods in the Northeast, but who end up looking alarmingly (grin and bear it) like the rest of us.
SOURCE: Deignan, Tom. “Good Liars.” World and I 17, no. 11 (November 2002): 229.
[In the following review, Deignan presents a critical reading of the stories in The Whore's Child and Other Stories, commending Russo's emphasis on examining the “act of storytelling.”]
Literary whippersnappers such as David Foster Wallace and Rick Moody spent the 1990s tinkering with the literary form to great acclaim. It seemed that when you opened any hip collection of stories, or the latest, greatest postmodern novel, you were as likely to see footnotes or characters who shared the author's name as you were to see dialogue and plot twists. Whether or not these formal developments were a passing fad remains to be seen. But what can be said is that, lately, more established mainstream writers have picked up the postmodern scent in the literary air.
Mind you, writers such as Ian McEwan in his acclaimed novel Atonement or Richard Russo in The Whore's Child, his new collection of short stories, are not interested in the kind of wink-wink formal play one gets from younger literary pranksters. Instead, Russo, McEwan, and others have examined the very process and act of storytelling itself. This may sound like a different page in the same deconstructionist book, but it's not.
In part, Foster Wallace and the others have been peeling back the curtain of authorship and demystifying, even satirizing, the craft (and hype) of fiction writing. Works such as Atonement have almost an opposite effect. As anyone who has read this novel's powerful final pages will tell you, it raises philosophical questions about fiction but does so in a way that actually reinvigorates the novelist's craft, heightening the mystery, power, and tension that (according to traditionalists, anyway) should be the main ingredients of all fiction.
A MYSTERIOUS NUN
“The Whore's Child,” Russo's first story, has the same effect. The story is set largely in a college fiction-writing class, a detail that would normally make this reader skip to the next story. More ominously still, Russo's story is narrated by a professor whose marriage is on the rocks and whose recent, much-hyped novel was ultimately a disappointment. The unlikely center of the story is actually Sister Ursula, who “belonged to an all but extinct order of Belgian nuns who conducted what little spiritual business remained to them in a decrepit old house purchased by the diocese seemingly because it was unlikely to outlast them.” Russo continues:
She appeared in class that first night and settled herself at the very center of the seminar despite the fact that her name did not appear on my computer printout. Fiction writing classes are popular and invariably oversubscribed at most universities, and never more so than when the writer teaching it has recently published a book, as I had done the past spring.
Publishing the kind of book that's displayed in strip-mall bookstores bestows a celebrity on academic writers and separates them from their scholarly colleagues, whose books resemble the sort of dubious specialty items found only in boutiques and health food stores. I'd gotten quite a lot of press on my recent book, my first in over a decade, and my fleeting celebrity might have explained Sister Ursula's presence in my classroom.
In her first submission, Sister Ursula writes: “In the convent, I was known as the whore's child.” These passages reveal several broader strengths of Russo's collection: powerful sentences, subtle humor, and, perhaps most interestingly, a fascination with what today is euphemistically known as “spirituality.”
In “The Whore's Child,” it's quickly clear to the narrator/professor that Sister Ursula is writing a memoir, not fiction. She lived, as a young girl, “in a Belgian convent school where the treatment of the children was determined by the social and financial status of the parents who had abandoned them.” Sister Ursula is clearly haunted by the ghost of her parents. She longs for her father to return to the convent and claim her, once even comparing him to Jesus on the cross.
During the workshops, the much younger students offer Sister Ursula feedback, some of it simplistic (“It's a victim story”), some banal (“Isn't there a lot of misogyny in this story?”). Russo also has fun with the university setting, noting, for example, that the misogyny comment was offered by “a male student who I happened to know was taking a course with the English department's sole radical feminist, and was therefore alert to all of misogyny's insidious manifestations.”
Equally amusing: When Sister Ursula finally concludes her grueling story, she says that this was her first college course “and she wanted the other students to know that she had enjoyed meeting them and reading their stories, and thanked them for helping her with hers. All of this was contained in the final paragraph of the story, an unconsciously postmodern gesture.”
But Russo never descends into mere satire throughout The Whore's Child. This is not a perfect collection of stories, but his characters have plenty of depth. Some of their trials and tribulations may seem all too familiar, yet they struggle genuinely (if not always successfully) to understand their place in a world that often requires blissful ignorance or willful deception.
It is to Russo's credit that, in “The Whore's Child,” he allows one of the fiction-class students (always a safe target for mere satire) to reveal the dramatic mystery of Sister Ursula's story, one that even she could not unravel. This story, after all, is not solely about one wounded woman but also how the author of any given narrative—or the liver of a given life—is severely limited in self-knowledge. Others inevitably alter and shape the narrative, whether we want them to or not.
“I was writing what you call a fictional story after all” is all Sister Ursula can say to the professor, who has been affected by the nun in complicated ways.
WRITERS AND ARTISTS
Most of the seven stories in The Whore's Child are breezily told and are about writers or artistic types. Again, this is generally troublesome in short fiction. Such stories can become mired in the swamp of insular academic arguments, upper-middle-class life, and artistic pretension. Russo's brainy characters are all the more surprising, given his success as a novelist portraying the blue-collar world. In Nobody's Fool (1994) he gave us Sully, a sympathetic fellow with a limp, down on his luck, yet unable to resist sabotaging himself once again. (The book was later made into a fine film directed by Robert Benton, starring Paul Newman, Melanie Griffith, and Bruce Willis.) His last novel, Empire Falls, also set in a depressed town, won him a much-deserved Pulitzer Prize. (Russo did publish an academic semi-satire called Straight Man in 1997.)
In The Whore's Child, thankfully, the writers and professors are not defined solely by their careers or aspirations. In fact, their concerns are not so different from the blue-collar folk of Nobody's Fool or Empire Falls: the advance of age; the fleeting joys and inevitable complications of love, marriage, and children. The two writers at the center of “Poison” escaped from a depressed mill town, but their youth continues to cast a long shadow over their bookish adult lives. “So, this is how successful writers live,” the pretty young wife of a gloomy writer/teacher says, to his childhood pal and his own wife, upon visiting the latter couple's new summer home. “Poison,” however, is not about literary competition. Instead, it explores how two men see the world, and the past, so differently. It is also about the ties that bind men and their fathers, whether the sons like it or not.
‘MY OLD MAN POISONED YOURS’
Gene, the gloomy teacher, has not done as well financially as the unnamed narrator, who has sold some work to Hollywood. “A funny place. … Here I'd worked on the [movie] project for almost a year and didn't have a thing to show for my participation, except for a third of a million dollars. More than I'd made on my six novels combined.” (Russo, too, has worked on several Hollywood scripts.)
On one level, “Poison” explores how so much of what is written, from novels to op-ed pieces, is not necessarily the product of good language and sound policy but instead personal psychology. “You're telling me it doesn't bother you that my old man poisoned yours?” asks Gene, whose dad was a foreman to the narrator's father back in the mill town. As college students inflamed by 60s-era rebellion, both despised their fathers' lives. While the narrator has moved on (though not forgotten), Gene remains stuck in a perpetual state of adolescent rebellion. Even his young wife mocks his grubby wardrobe. “He thinks of this as his Thoreau sweater. The badge of welcome poverty.” Later she comments, “It means he's a proletarian writer laboring in the sweatshop of tough, honest prose.”
It gets to a point where nearly every character in “Poison” is pondering what everything “connotes,” from the food and wine to their career choices. It's as if the characters read each other as they would, well, a short story.
But again, for all of the writerly in-jokes, Russo ultimately aims for higher stakes. “We could shut [the mill] down, the two of us,” Gene proposes, knowing that these two local boys who made good are perhaps the only ones who could “wage that final, unwinnable battle with the past.” Though the narrator may be content in the present, he still gives his old pal's suggestion serious thought, much to the dismay of the narrator's wife.
‘GOD LIT THIS ONE’
Marriage is given lengthier treatment in “Buoyancy,” “The Farther You Go,” and “Monhegan Light,” though the latter explores the fallout from a marriage. Interesting, if a bit clichéd, “Monhegan Light” is about a man who never appreciated his wife until after she died and her extramarital affair is revealed.
When the story begins, Martin, a Hollywood photography director, is traveling to the titular island, “a middle-aged man next to his fetching, far younger traveling companion.” After casually making an obscene gesture, Martin scolds his flashy blonde lover (who is no bimbo, it should be noted). She dismissively responds: “Well, old man, I've spent a lot of money on these boobs.”
Though traveling with his new lover, Martin is going to meet the man with whom his deceased wife carried on an affair for two decades. The affair was essentially revealed when Martin discovered an erotic painting of his wife. Approaching the island where his dead wife's artist/lover resides, Martin (who illuminates the false reality of movie sets) is struck by the natural beauty. “Don't be jealous, babe,” his young lover says. “God lit this one.”
Readers should enjoy wrestling with the number of subtle allusions to religion and God in Russo's collection. In “Monhegan Light,” this reference illustrates the story's key conflict—between what is artificial and what is genuine. Martin, the cynical Hollywood technician with a biologically enhanced girlfriend, confronts the nearly Hemingway-esque painter who captured the natural beauty of his wife in a way Martin never could.
The men—both of whom live to capture and reflect people and images—do not fight, but instead drink beer and chat about their respective trades. “The light's about finished for today, Martin. … The best light's usually early. The rest is memory. Not like the bastard business you're in,” the painter says.
None of the “Monhegan Light” characters are quite as one-dimensional as they might sound here. Still, by contrasting the romantic, passionate artist and the superficial Hollywood moviemaker, Russo is swimming in the shallow end of his fictional waters. After asking why the artist painted his wife after her terminal disease set in, Martin adds, “She wasn't what you'd call a beautiful woman.” The painter dramatically responds: “No, Martin, she wasn't what you'd call a beautiful woman. She was one of the most beautiful I've ever laid eyes on.”
“Monhegan Light” concludes with a revealing comic scene. It also fleshes out nicely the entire collection's thread of how humans see—and more often, have difficulty seeing—what is true and what is false about each other.
THE ANXIETY OF FATHERHOOD
“The Farther You Go” is a classic portrait of male anxiety, told in a choppy but ultimately satisfying way. Following an operation upon the most sensitive—physically and psychologically—part of his body, Hank is told that his daughter has just been struck by her husband. Hank's reaction is, to say the least, understated. Nevertheless, Hank is enlisted to escort the offending man to the airport, his daughter's marriage essentially over. One reason for both Hank's participation and his understatement is that his daughter lives too close for comfort to the home he shares with his wife.
Deftly, Russo explores the subtle discomforts of fatherhood, particularly when adult children are nearby screwing up their own lives. “The Farther You Go” (note the parental suggestion of the title) moves in fits and spurts until Hank is at the airport and is overwhelmed by both the memory of an ex-lover and the weight of his current physical (and marital) state. Russo's conclusion is wonderfully executed, portraying both the contentment and fear that do battle in Hank's life.
Two remaining stories in The Whore's Child explore love and marriage, but through children's eyes. In “The Mysteries of Linwood Hart,” the title character turns to Little League baseball when his parents' breakup becomes too frustrating. A bit too long and familiar in its exploration of a young boy's awkward struggles, the story uses a character named Mr. Christie (another religious figure, it would seem) to bring an intriguing layer of romantic complexity.
“Joy Ride” has a similar impact. A mother hits the road at dawn with her twelve-year-old son, seeking to escape her small-town life and husband. The inconvenience and danger of driving cross-country is not exactly fresh, but Russo's exploration of the mother-son relationship is insightful. The story's powerful conclusion, meanwhile, is a knockout. Though darker than most of the stories, “Joy Ride” offers a hard-earned truth that captures what is most impressive about this challenging collection.
When illness befalls the father of the now-older narrator, the mother/son youthful escape has evolved merely into a benign extended vacation. Is this a terrible lie, an awful distortion of the dark past?
In a way, all seven stories in The Whore's Child beg this response to the question: Does it really matter? Whether the subject is childhood angst or, literally, life and death, Russo's stories present us with a world so fickle and unpredictable that sometimes enlightenment can be obtained only by accepting the wisdom contained in half-truths, distortions, or plain old lies.
Of his mother's selective memory in “Joy Ride,” the narrator states matter-of-factly: “This fiction became especially necessary, even essential.” Or as the professor in the title story puts it, slightly more playfully: “We're all liars here, Sister.” As Richard Russo well knows, the same could be said of novelists and short story writers.