I just put down Richard Russo’s latest novel, Everybody’s Fool. Clocking in at 477 pages I devoured it in just over two days. Now, this suggests two things; that the book was so good I couldn’t put it down– or I have way too much time on my hands lately, and, so, had nothing else to do. Both are true to a certain extent, but don’t put too much emphasis on either reason for its quick consumption.
Some books just play out like that.Neither page-turners, or deep ruminations on character development and motivations, Everybody’s Fool is both of these in spades.
Everybody’s Fool is in every way the sequel to Mr. Russo’s 1993 novel Nobody’s Fool. Made into a fantastic film by Robert Benton starring Paul Newman, Jessica Tandy, Bruce Willis, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Gene Saks and Philip Seymour Hoffman, It was a perfectly cast movie that, I must admit, colored the perceptions– and looks — of the characters long before I read the book. After reading the book, not very long after seeing the film, and several more times since, I have an affection for these small town denizens that borders on a nostalgia that hasn’t yet happened in my real life, or has, because I’m in the middle of it.
Nobody’s Fools central thread revolves around Donald Sullivan, known to all in the depressed upstate New York town North Bath (there is no South Bath), as Sully. Sully is one of those guys. You know at least one. Stubborn, poor, a guy with a heart of gold, who for some reason always does things the hard way, but is liked– and reviled– both in equal measure, who’s reputation depends on his actions. He’s a deadbeat Dad, a philanderer, a thief. He is also steadfast and true and sure of his convictions– no matter how wrong they could be. Donald Sullivan is the catalyst that moves the narrative in Nobody’s Fool.
The overriding theme in Nobody’s Fool is revenge. Revenge for perceived wrongs, whether real or imagined, Like Sullys neglect of his family home on Bowden Street to utter dilapidation in order to get back at his cowardly, drunken violent father. Or the slow dismantling of Carl Roebuck’s Old Mans construction company by being an utter asshole. Or the sinking feeling that North Bath just doesn’t deserve redemption sheerly through the forces of bad luck. Whatever it is that hangs over the town of North Bath is not sunshine, but constant overcast.
There are many, many amusing moments that occur during Russo’s book– too many to mention here– and many moments of pathos and introspection. But, Nobody’s Fool really ends up up where it begins. Loose ends are tied up, and relationships resolved. Not all in nice little bows, but satisfying enough for you to put the book down and call it quits. That is how Small Town life plays out. Life goes on.
Everybody’s Fool turns that ending on it’s head. Ten years have gone by. The most colorful and wise inhabitants of Bath have shuffled this mortal coil, and left mostly fools in charge. or so it seems. There is a new mayor, Gus Moynihan, a retired Poli-Sci academic who has it in his head that he he can turn hapless Bath around. Douglas Raymer, who in the previous book had mistakenly discharged his firearm at Sully while he was driving on the sidewalk, is now the Chief of Police. Also back in town, after a long stint up the river, is Roy Purdy, a petty criminal and wife beater, sworn to exact revenge on those he deems need it.
Though Sully dominates Nobody’s Fool, it is his life-long nemesis Chief Raymer who dominates Everybody’s Fool. A decent, yet deeply flawed young man, he has grown into an even more troubled middle aged man in crisis. Questioning his every waking moment, even after having married the prettiest woman in town, getting elected Chief of Police and earning the grudging respect of his constituents, Douglas Raymer is a rampant cauldron of self doubt and hatred. His every waking moment used to second-guessing whatever it is he his doing. But he lacks the skills, or outside experience to address these issues. Like most small town inhabitants that have limited exposure to– or little interest in– solutions outside of their small world, they figure this is what life is and you make the best of it.
Until the day he discovers his wife, in the act of of leaving him– her suit cases packed and lined up on their condos porch– dead from a fall down a flight of stairs. This sets in motion the central sub-text of Russo’s novel: Given enough intuition, and a little less self-involvement on the part of Baths inhabitants, could their lives have been a little less tragic, a little more at peace?
The human heart, being what it is, wants what it wants when it wants it. Fleeting glances at the possible repercussions of ones actions rarely effect the outcome of rash decisions, even years down the line. There are consequences. There are repercussions. Though both of those previous word carry negative connotations, that is not always so. If something starts out as wrong who is to say that a catalytic change cannot transform something toxic to something kind.
Everyone in this book wants to fix something and be at peace with the efforts they made. Somewhere between Nobody’s Fool and Everybody’s Fool something changed. Where I found Nobody’s Fool lighthearted and entertaining, Everybody’s Fool was not. This novel was a downward spiral to all the things that made North Bath a curious, yet not unoriginal playground for it’s inhabitants, who, for the most part, loved their town and made the best of it.
Sequels, at best, are a double edged sword. They could surpass the original or not. To Russo’s credit he revisited a town that he knew well. Knew it’s inhabitants and how they would have evolved, and wrote a book that seemed close to his heart. Russo has a grip on what things motivate his characters pasts and makes them them operate in their futures– some of aware of what motivates them– some not, but he make US aware of why they are doing the things they do. Much of his work is backstory.
Which brings me back to why this is both a page-turner and a rumination on his characters motivations. Russo, in the middle of telling you what is going on in real time will take the time to ruminate on what is going on in their heads as they are doing it. A simple act of stealing something small will harken back to a hard lesson learned at the hands of whoever had taught it to them.
I love Richard Russo’s books. I’ve read most of them… Empire Falls (for which he won the Pulitzter), Mohawk, The Risk Pool, Straight Man… but I have not read his more autobiographical books– perhaps it would ruin his smart-assed fiction for me.
Also, as a postscript…If you read the books, or watch the move, I could have been Scully– without the bad homelife.