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A fool for Richard Russo

That would be moi. I’ve been a huge Russo fan ever since I swiped a former Significant Other’s copy of Empire Falls and, after finishing it, proceeded to wolf down the rest of her library of Russo’s amazing work in one great gulp of binge-reading. This rave review of his latest release describes what’s in store for the Russo reader.

In an endnote, Russo says that he kept returning to North Bath because he liked the characters—and there is a lot to like. He kept hearing Sully’s voice in his head, and gradually, he acknowledges, that voice became Paul Newman’s, who so unforgettably portrayed Sully in the film of Nobody’s Fool. But another voice also stuck with him, that of the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who turned a bit part in the film as the officious but hapless officer Douglas Raymer—whom Sully bests in a comic confrontation—into such a definitive portrayal that Russo made Raymer a major character in subsequent North Bath novels. In Somebody’s Fool, Raymer is now the retired chief of the former North Bath police department, called back into service to deal with a dead body and with corruption in the newly consolidated Schuyler Springs force—whose crooked cops have much do with Thomas’s near-death experience. While it’s not uncommon for authors to disdain or disown film adaptions of their work, Russo has said of the 1994 film, “You could examine it frame by frame and you’d learn just about everything you needed to know about adapting a book for film.” It’s not an exaggeration to say that the film helped bring Russo back to North Bath.

Even as Russo publishes Somebody’s Fool, another of his works has made it to the screen—in this case television—in an AMC miniseries adaption of Straight Man. This 1997 novel is Russo’s “university book,” but unlike those that Vidal disdained, Straight Man is a wickedly funny, harshly critical depiction of life in an English Department where ideology shapes professors’ research and writing, academics use petty politics to advance their careers, and the decline of the humanities has created a constant fear of budget cuts. Though the novel itself is 25 years old, it so accurately depicted where the humanities were headed that it doesn’t take much massaging to turn it into 2023 series with the ironic title of Lucky Hank—a reference to the bored, cranky English Department chair, William Henry Devereaux, Jr., who endlessly torments his deserving colleagues. Though quite different from Nobody’s Fool, Lucky Hank has garnered similar acclaim—in part because both sources benefit from Russo’s gift for creating comic characters with serious significance.

Russo supported himself in college by working the kinds of hard jobs at which many of his characters toil. There, he watched his father and his father’s friends use humor to get themselves through jobs, after which he’d join them at some local bar to help laugh away the day’s aches. It’s that kind of storytelling, in Russo’s hands, that makes his blue-collar novels so engaging and palatable, because oftentimes the circumstances of his characters are difficult at best, near-awful at worst. American fiction is better because Russo stuck with characters who he thought he was escaping when he went off to school. The arc of his career reminds me of the words of the narrator of Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Unbound, writing about himself in the third person, when he observes that all he wanted as a young student was to leave behind “all the shallow provincials” of his hometown “for the deep emancipating world of Art. As it turned out, he had taken them all with him.”

Russo has done the same, in the process taking many of his lucky readers along for the ride, too.

It’s a ride I very much look forward to taking, and highly recommend to everybody else out there too.

(Via John Tierney)

Update! Just for shits and giggles I had a look in on the IMDb page for the Empire Falls miniseries, which I remember greatly enjoying back in the days when I still watched TV now and then. Somehow, I’d forgotten that it was Paul Newman’s last acting performance. It’s one of the vanishingly rare exceptions to the rule that any film or TV project featuring a long list of A-list actors is guaranteed to suck big green donkey dick.


1 thought on “A fool for Richard Russo

  1. I am a reader with a large backlog but adding to my list. Checked out the IMDB link for potential viewing, except for Newman maybe one or two others lots of commies so a hard pass.

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