Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
If Richard Russo wasn’t a great writer he might have made a pretty good physicist because he seems to know all about inertia. Or at least he’s an expert at having his characters struggle against its force whether they're trying to get moving or change direction.
This sequel to Nobody's Fool returns us to the blue collar town of Bath in upstate New York. A change in his circumstances from the previous book has made Donald Sullivan relatively prosperous with no need to work the kind of back breaking jobs he’d done for most of his life, but at 70 he’s just received some very bad news about his health. Sully’s old nemesis, Douglas Raymer, is now the police chief, but no one respects him including Raymer himself. His wife died just as she was about to leave him for another man, and Raymer is obsessed with learning the identity of this guy by using the only clue he has, a remote control for a garage door opener.
In addition to Sully and Raymer we catch up with several other Bath residents. Rub feels forsaken and heartbroken that he doesn’t get to spend all day working with his best friend Sully anymore. Carl Roebuck’s construction company is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and a disgusting unknown substance oozing of the basement in his latest project isn’t going to improve that situation. Ruth used to cheat on her husband with Sully, but even though their affair has cooled off she is growing conflicted about his regular presence in the diner she runs. She’s also worried that about her no-good former son-in-law hanging around now that he’s out of jail despite the restraining order against him. Raymer has to deal with his sassy officer Charice whose sharp tongue often makes him feel even dumber than usual, and her twin brother Jerome isn’t helping his state of mind either.
There’s a couple of things that set this apart from Nobody’s Fool. The first book took place over several months and took its time getting you into the small town rhythms of Sully’s life. Everything here occurs over an eventful 48 hours that begins with a funeral and includes a construction accident, deadly reptiles, a tree pruning mishap, lightning strikes, and a crime spree. Russo does a nice job of filling us in on the back stories of the previous novel while catching us up on what’s happened since, but as with Nobody’s Fool or Empire Falls the real charm lies not with the story but with the characters.
You’d think that with small town folks like these would be fairly dull, but Russo gives us the rich inner lives of each person he shifts the focus to so that each of them feels like the hero of their own epic story. Even a pretty simple and stupid guy like Rub, whose biggest dreams are of free cheeseburgers, becomes a minor tragedy as he reflects on how much he misses working with Sully every day and faces the realization that things will never be like that again. However, Russo is also constantly throwing in touches of comedy that keep things from becoming maudlin and morose.
Sully is as big a draw here as he was in the first novel. There he was an aging rogue who was determined to live his own way even if he acknowledged that his stubbornness was preventing him from ever getting ahead. Older now and facing his own mortality Sully has started to reflect a bit more on what his actions mean for the lives of others.
Raymer is the second major piece and maybe more of an accomplishment for Russo. Moving an existence character like Sully forward ten years has the advantage of starting with a known quantity. Raymer was a very minor figure in the first book who was portrayed as a complete idiot. Turning him from that into a sympathetic guy who constantly thinks of himself as a fool who is failing at everything was no easy task. He could have come across as self-pitying or tiresome, but I found myself engaged and rooting hard for Raymer to pull his act together.
As with other two Russo books I’ve read it did seem to go on a bit too long, and there were a few too many story twists and turns. Still, he’s got an incredible knack for writing about these small town people and immersing us in their lives to the point where I’m interested and entertained by pretty much anything they’re doing. It’s a great follow up to Nobody’s Fool with the same warmth and humor.
One thing did bum me out while reading this. Nobody’s Fool was adapted into a very good movie starring Paul Newman as Sully. Newman died in 2008 so obviously he couldn’t reprise the role, but that film also had Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who was just starting out at the time, playing Raymer. Reading this now I was repeatedly struck by the thought this would have been a fantastic part for Hoffman to come back to. More’s the pity.
View all my reviews