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Thread: Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo

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    Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo

    Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. 477 pages.

    Richard Russo might be called the Bard of upstate New York not only for the frequency with which he returns to that region but for how well he knows the natives. There is a definite crick in their neck of the woods.

    This latest offering takes place where a previous Russo novel, Nobody’s Fool, leaves off: in North Bath, close geographically but starkly separated from its gentrified neighbor, Schuyler Springs. With such a civic inferiority complex, North Bath’s inhabitants, like Raymond Carver characters, attempt to cope with life’s proverbial ups and downs, in this case mainly downs.

    Returning is “Nobody’s fool “ himself, Sully, rough-hewn, unpretentious, and endearing. With the infusion of a modest inheritance, his money troubles have lessened but the prognosis for his health is not good, and he’s conflicted about ending a long-term love affair. North Bath’s chief of police Doug Raymer is in no better shape; as a relatively recent widower he is obsessed with – of all things - an electronic garage door opener, the key with which he hopes as well as dreads to unlock an agonizing secret.

    Along with the main duo are finely-drawn folks, including Sully’s less-than-gifted companion, Rub (incidentally the name of a pitiful pooch); their occasional employer, the corner-cutting unsuccessful developer, Carl; and Ruth, Sully’s paramour, a no-nonsense female with her own slate of family problems.

    Another strong woman comes in the form of Raymer’s assistant, Charice. Their budding romantic relationship comes upon unexpected roadblocks, such as a dramatic change in Charice’s charming brother, Jerome, a rising professional in the more prosperous town. A chilling presence in the plot comes in the form of Roy Purdy, an unredeemable ex-con whose violence slashes across the latter pages of the novel like a scythe. This represents one of Russo’s frequent themes, domestic violence, a term to which Sully and company would undoubtedly refer as “wife beating.”

    Although the second-tier characters are well-rounded, integral components of the plot, at some point the reader wonders if Russo might be hoisting too many balls in the air at once (although expertly juggled.) The subplot involving the town’s mayor Gus and his evidently demented wife, Alice, is intriguing, especially with the flashback showing Gus’s predecessor, Kurt, a “Talented Mr. Ripley” type of manipulator. There could be much to mine in that plot of gold, perhaps another spin-off book.

    The summary thus far may make it appear that Everybody’s Fool is a sobfest, an emotional masochist’s dream come true. Not at all! Russo’s sense of humor is similar to that of a fellow upstate New Yorker, Donald E. Westlake, with an extra dash of poignancy thrown in. In his review of Everybody’s Fool, the contemporary novelist T.C. Boyle cites Russo’s comic perspective and ranks Straight Man (1997)among the finest satires of academia, such as Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. Everybody’s Fool doesn’t offer quite as many laugh aloud jokes as the earlier book, but you can bet there are more than a few amusing passages.

    As truthfully stated by actual critics, Russo’s talent is in the ability to know his characters inside and out, right down to what cable news pundits like to call the “granular” level. The prose reflects this in that the narration takes on the voice and vocabulary of the character described at the moment. It’s mostly seamless, yet at times appears hard to pull off, such as with the inner dialogue between Raymer and an alter ego, “Dougie.”

    Another minor quibble arises with the verbal anachronisms here and there, catch phrases circa 2016, such as “default mode,” and “throwing someone under the bus.” Since Sully is a World War II veteran, we know the novel’s set in a somewhat earlier era. Sully is not a nonagenarian, at least not yet.

    Everybody’s Fool isn’t in my ever increasingly humble opinion Russo’s best book, and neither is his Pulitzer Prize winning Empire Falls. His masterpiece is Bridge of Sighs (2007), such a stunning work of art that I sometimes still think of scenes from that novel in the near decade since I’ve read it.

    Still, I would highly recommend that “everybody” read Everybody’s Fool, eminently entertaining as well as presenting a literary experience hard to come by these days– a satisfying ending.
    Last edited by AuntShecky; 06-26-2017 at 06:09 PM.

  2. #2
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    All sane readers will understand that the ideas I express below are secondary to those of the legendary LitNetter, Aunt Shecky. Sometimes we will disagree, but be compassionate. She's a hard act to follow.

    Everybody's Fool is a sequel to Nobody's Fool, Richard Russo's beloved novel of working class life in Upstate New York. The first novel was published 24 years ago. Since then, Russo has transformed from an academically well regarded but commercially middling writer to a best-selling author, Pulitzer Prize winner, and NPR celebrity. As his fortunes changed so did his writing, especially in the authenticity with which it represented the blue collar world he wrote about and from which he came. Many of Russo's readers remember the realism, pathos, and offbeat humor of his early novels with a fondness amounting to nostalgia. Certain longtime readers have been less welcoming of his more recent efforts.

    Everybody's Fool is therefore a peculiar sequel. Is it an update of characters and situations for a new century or an attempt to recreate Russo's 1990s novels? It is the latter: a studied reconstruction of past glories--at least in principle. But the curious thing about Everybody's Fool is that the author never fully succeeds in his artifice. The post-Pulitzer Prize Russo inadvertently shows through--wealthy and successful now, no longer part of the underdog lifestyle he describes. The ironic thing--and what makes Everybody's Fool work, really--is that these failures are sometimes superior to Russo's attempts to get back to where he once belonged. They keep the novel real when the nostalgia wears thin.

    All that produces what I call genre creep. Yes, Everybody's Fool works well as Nobody's Fool Revisited; the pathos and humor are still there. But the truth is it works better as a crime story--even a lowlife novel. And that could not have happened without Mr Russo changing certain of his ideas about America's working class. Try as he will, he cannot hide this. Success may not have spoiled Richard Russo, but it changed him.

    Strangly enough, Everybody's Fool's journey from social comedy to crime novel may have been due in part to the ghostly influence of the late, great character actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman played Douglas Raymer, North Bath's buffoonish police officer, in a 1994 film version of Nobody's Fool. Low budget but critically well regarded, the movie is famous for Paul Newman's portrayal of the tough-as-nails, good hearted, but utterly irresponsible Donald "Sully" Sullivan--the titular Nobody's Fool. Sully remains a major character in Everybody's Fool, but the novel's central figure is Officer (now Chief of Police) Raymer--still (at least at the novel's start) Everybody's Fool. During a promotional interview for Everybody's Fool that Russo gave NPR's Terry Gross (during which it was painfully obvious that Gross had never read Nobody's Fool), he agreed to her suggestion that Hoffman had been Russo's inspiration for expanding Raymer's role in Everybody's Fool (thus making it, in some ways, a police story).

    I'm not sure I buy it. I avoided the film version of Nobody's Fool for years--mostly because I couldn't bear to think of Sully as Paul Newman. But I broke down and watched it to review the before reading Everybody's Fool. And yes, Paul Newman was physically all wrong for Sully, but his characterization, I must admit, was near perfect. Hoffman was--well, okay, but due to the film's relative brevity (time is money), he only had what amounted to a bit part. It's hard to imagine his performance inspiring Russo to write Everybody's Fool a quarter century later--but maybe. Or maybe Dick was telling Terry what she wanted to hear (anything to move those books) and maybe Terry was talking out of her bottom.

    But whatever inspired Russo to allow a minor player like Raymer become the titular character in Everybody's Fool, his decision was--well, inspired. Now in middle age, Raymer has become overwhelmed with a pathetic if somewhat comical self-loathing--one that goes off the map with his beautiful wife's freak death. She had been in the process of leaving him for a lover; her bags were on the porch and a note asking Raymer to "be happy for us" was on a table when she slipped on a loose carpet, tumbled down a flight of stairs, and broke her neck. All of this was news to Raymer when he found her crumpled body. To his embarrassment, the denizens of North Bath quickly became aware of these details. But Raymer has no idea which of them was cuckolding him.

    Raymer's bungling attempts to solve the mystery only plunge him deeper into despair. With his self-respect tanking, he moves into a seedy apartment complex filled with the town's criminal and near-criminal dregs. Darker things than adultery are happening behind those doors, but whether Raymer can respond to them (he is Chief of Police, after all) is another matter.

    I note that this is a less charming, more dangerous North Bath than Russo told us about in the 1990s. In those days, criminality was a kind of dangerous hijinks: Sully and his reprobate boss, Carl Robuck, stealing a snow plow back and forth from each other--a game not without risk but ultimately expressing an odd sort of fraternal love. But Russo seems less sure of the town's residents now. Twenty-four years after Nobody's Fool, it is Sully's old nemesis Raymer on whom he and we place our slim hopes.

    Not that Russo doesn't try to gloss this over. The Horse, Sully's old watering hole, is still open for business, and the old gang still goes there to bust balls and play poker in the back room. But the real action in this story takes place at Gert's, a dirty, lowlife bar across from Raymer's dangerous apartment complex. Times change--or maybe an author does.

    Sully's story also works best when nostalgia is put away. Rub, his less-than-swift sidekick from Nobody's Fool, is back. But Rub is pathetic now--almost unable to exist without Sully, who finds clingy attentions a growing burden. Midway through the novel, Sully takes in a stray dog (with the disturbing habit of chewing his own penis) and names him Rub. The human Rub disappears from the narrative for some time after that (or he's there when the dog is, but never really sure if he or the dog is being ordered to sit or stay). This is Sully's joke, but it is also Russo's. Why have Rub at all, he seems to be asking: why not just give Sully a dog?

    But Russo hits some potholes on his return to North Bath. Aunt Shecky says he tries to put too many balls in the air. That's overly kind. Just at the moment when he needs his narrative to tighten, Russo launches into an unnecessary and utterly implausible story about Raymer, Sully, and Carl Robuck (Sully's old snowplow antagonist) secretly digging up a grave. Raymer is looking for the garage door opener Aunt Shecky mentions above. The premise makes little sense: Sully (who doesn't like Raymer) has no motive to do something so foolish, and Robuck is a notoriously selfish SOB --why would he put himself at risk for Raymer? Russo's implied explanation is that Sully thought a return to his old devil-may-care antics would be healthy for him and (maybe ) that Robuck went along because he was starting to owe Sully some favors. But none of it is convincing and the entire episode goes nowhere and adds nothing to the plot. My theory is that Russo was looking for some way to connect Sully's narrative to Raymer's. The two narrative threads actually have little to do with one another. Sully's story, which is ultimately as meaningful (and alarming) as Raymer's, just goes its own way. In fact, Russo might very we'll have produced separate novels from this material.

    Which brings me to Everybody's Fool's biggest problem: it needs a good editor. In fact, I would go further: Richard Russo has needed a good editor for the last 10 years. Here's what happened: after years of writing quality books with limited commercial success, Russo struck gold when Empire Falls won the Pulitzer Prize and was subsequently made into a cable miniseries. Whereupon he disappeared for five or six years to bask in his hard earned success. He returned with Bridge of Sighs in 2007. My problem with that book is the same as my problem with Everybody's Fool: at some point some goofball in the publishing industry decided that the words of a Pulitzer Prize winner needed to be edited sparingly--resulting in new books that deserved a more critical eye than they received. Although I generally share Aunt Shecky's good opinion of Bridge of Sighs, I wish it had been a better final product--perhaps two tightly edited books instead of one literary free for all.

    Everybody's Fool falls victim to this same kind of bashful editing. The grave digging sequence is followed by the chapter Aunt Shecky mentioned about North Bath's mayor and his psychologically vulnerable (okay, batsh*t crazy) wife. The chapter is gripping--even disturbing--but as a part of the novel as a whole, it is a loose end that goes absolutely nowhere. Aunt Shecky is correct: it could have been the basis for a separate novel. It deserved to be. But it should not have ended up in Everybody's Fool.

    Smaller matters, too, slipped through the editor's grasp. At one point, Russo describes a "pile-driving peal of thunder." A pile driver is a machine for driving architectural foundations into the ground and presumably it is loud. Maybe that's not the most accessible of metaphors (I've never heard a pile driver, have you?) but that's Russo's call. So fine--pile-driving thunder. But not long afterwards, he refers to a "pile-driving clap of thunder." The repetition makes Russo look unimaginative and calls attention to what was an awkward figure of speech in the first place. An editor should have caught it.

    And as long as I'm niggling, I may as well make a complete nerd of myself with this. At one point in Raymer's story, a coral snake turns up (yes, a coral snake). The serpent is described as having a triangular head and coming "all the way from Africa". But coral snakes are from the New World, not Africa, and have round heads. American pit vipers (like rattlesnakes) have triangular heads, but coral snakes are distant relatives of cobras and have round ones. Okay, that's somewhat obscure knowledge (until you really need it! ), but I knew, and I'm no herpetologist. Someone should have caught it, that's all I'm saying. What do you mean, I could use a good editor, myself? ;-)

    Okay, I have one more criticism of Everybody's Fool--or more of a complaint, I suppose, since it's entirely subjective. The identity of Raymer's dead wife's lover is the novel's central mystery. Unfortunately (for my enjoyment in any case), its solution was obvious to me from near the start. I kept hoping that Russo had planted a red herring and the actual solution would surprise me--but no. That was disappointing. But hopefully Russo can pull the wool over your eyes for longer than he did mine.

    Despite its flaws, Everybody's Fool is an excellent novel. Two and a half decades between book and sequel is a formidable gap to bridge. Russo pulls it off where many authors would have failed. I recommend his novel to any who have read Nobody's Fool. Otherwise do yourself a favor and pick that book up today. Even after so many years, Sully's still the nads.
    And this from a man in a bunny suit.

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