Saturday, May 14, 2016

"Everybody's Fool," by Richard Russo

I really, really don’t want to essentialize gender roles. But sometimes, for reasons of either nature or nurture, or some combination thereof, there do seem to be differences between men and women, and also in the ways that male writers and female writers portray life and the universe. And these differences are an element in the reasons I read far more fiction by female writers than males. There is a tendency for women to write more about characters and relationships, it seems, and those are among the most important qualities to me when reading novels and short stories. Obviously these statements of mine are broad generalizations, and there are many exceptions. There is probably some kind of Venn Diagram somewhere portraying the overlap, when the work of individual writers of each gender (not forgetting those who do not fit into this binary) is analyzed and classified. Which leads me to the work of Richard Russo, and specifically to his new novel, “Everybody’s Fool” (Knopf, 2016), which I have just read with great enjoyment and a bit of awe at what an amazing writer he is. In this novel (and in some but not all of his others, several of which I have read and which I highly recommend), he writes mostly about male characters, mostly of the working class, and there is a lot of male-type action (if I am allowed this shorthand, appended to which readers will please assume all the usual caveats and hedges), such as heavy drinking in dive bars, fights and brawling, guns, criminal behavior (mostly petty, but not all), crazy stunts, and “guy talk” about the bodies of women. Those are all elements that I usually am not very interested in. But Russo makes these characters come alive, with all their complicated qualities, and makes me care about them. “Everybody’s Fool” is a sort of sequel to “Nobody’s Fool,” taking place about ten years after the events of that novel. The main character in the original novel, Sully, is a complicated, ornery, tough, confused, devil-may-care, seemingly aimless guy (played, incidentally, by my longtime favorite actor, Paul Newman, in the movie version of that novel). Sully is a main character in this current novel as well, but other main characters step up, including a minor character from the first novel, Doug Raymer, now in a much more prominent role as the somewhat hapless police chief of the small, hapless upstate New York town of Bath. Other male characters such as the mayor, Gus Moynihan, and a failing developer, Carl Roebuck, are in equal parts swaggering and overwhelmed by life. The fewer women characters generally don’t fare better, and mostly serve as foils for the men. One wife and one ex-wife are mentally and emotionally ill. Only one female character, Chief Raymer’s assistant, Charice, is (mostly) confident, healthy, independent, and strong, and even she often prioritizes her commitment to help her emotionally crippled brother Jerome over her own needs and desires. But I don't want to leave the impression that Russo slights women characters, or that they are one-dimensional; neither characterization is true. Mostly, all the characters, male or female, just muddle along. There are many robust plot points in "Everybody's Fool," some comedic and some tragic, and most some combination of the two. The novel's characters are all caught in an environment of failure, in a town that progress has passed by, yet its inhabitants find ways to get by. After all, Bath is home, and those co-inhabiting the town are -- whether loved, loathed, or simply tolerated -- family members, ex-spouses, friends, former classmates, drinking buddies, and former and present love interests. Despite some rivalries and resentments of past slights and fallings-out, there are many moments of humanity, of mutual support, of good intentions, and of insights hard won. Russo never, ever condescends to his characters, but he also is not afraid to show their foibles and limitations. All this is a long way of saying that I believe Russo’s fiction combines the best of “men’s fiction” (otherwise known by some as “mainstream literary fiction”) and “women’s fiction,” and the result is rich, funny, sad, entertaining, uplifting but not in a sappy way, and just plain bursting with humanity. During the time period when I was reading this novel, I happened to stumble on -- with great delight -- Russo being interviewed on the radio, on "Fresh Air," by the terrific Terry Gross (about whom I have written here as well), and he sounded like a man I would love to know in person: a classic smart, gifted, funny and caring "nice guy." So thank you, Richard Russo; I "heart" you and your wonderful fiction. Please write many more novels!
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