Study This: The Fools Have It

I spent a good little chunk of time reading Richard Russo last summer. (You may or may not be aware that I’m a Russo fan. So much so that I may have just this second talked myself into rereading Empire Falls, which won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.)

But we were talking about my summer reading program.* This is what happened. I heard that there was a new book out, Everybody’s Fool. It’s a sequel to Russo’s 1993 novel Nobody’s Fool, which you may know because, well, they made a movie of it and Paul Newman starred in it (along with Jessica Tandy, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith, Dylan Walsh, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, among others).

I loved the movie.** But when I ordered Everybody’s, I also purchased Nobody’s and read it first. I like things to happen in order.

As it turns out, Nobody’s was too long. (You’ll read in reviews, even, “overwritten.” I got past my impatience eventually and now recognize that Russo is just a writer who works everything—every single thing—out on paper, so to speak.) It was ultimately engaging for reasons I’ll discuss, and I’m glad I read it, particularly because I can see how he improved as a writer. But I loved the sequel. And the writing transformation is complete. Everybody’s is not too long; it is just right. Russo is at the top of his game.

Which leads me to the reasons you might these books to learn about craft:

  • Humor
  • Milieu
  • Characterization
  • Write what you know

The novels are shot through with wry humor—humor that is never mean or self-pitying. In his review for the NY Times, T. C. Boyle says “the humor is essentially benign, genial, and it works in service of the characters”—and that’s it exactly. The humor is organic to each character, and it doesn’t call attention to itself. That said, Russo is not above a little slapstick either. Kinda like life. :) Both books are comedies; Ron Charles of the Washington Post declares that “Russo is probably the best writer of physical comedy that we have.” Amen.

The small-town, working-class milieu is something that feels very familiar—there are the straight-man characters, the kooks and the cranks, the troublemakers, the people just trying to get by, all in this little village. North Bath is, in some ways, a character in the novel; it is well observed.

Russo’s gift, really, is characterization. People are complicated, and life is messy—and he has an ear (and a heart) for that. I particularly loved watching Russo take a minor character from the first Fool and give him his own tale in the second Fool, filling in the background and tying him into the bigger picture.

Yes, there are a lot of male characters; actually, it’s a thing I particularly like about Russo’s novels.*** They’re real and alive and I get to live inside their heads in a way that’s accessible and endearing. Ron Charles says Russo is “sensitive to the mingled strands of poignancy, affection and bluster in male friendships.” Agreed. I know these guys.

And I think the reason this place and these characters are so appealing is because Russo knows them too. Which is to say: he writes what he knows. He was born and raised in upstate New York, and has used this venue for several of his novels, not just the Fools. In fact, a lot of Russo’s work is semi-autobiographical. (Straight Man surely was inspired by his experiences in academia, for example.) You can see his life’s fingerprints all over his work.

Have a look. See what you think. I’m still convinced that Nobody’s was too long (all the great lines from the book did make it into the movie, if that tells you anything: it could be edited without losing what made it special)—but even that is a learning experience. How would you edit it? What would you cut? Think about that.

* I had a copy of Russo’s Straight Man (1997) on my TBR shelf, and I polished that off next. :)

** And now, having read the book, I’ll add it to my short list of movies that was as good (perhaps better) than the book.

*** He does just fine with the women too.


Tweet: I spent a good little chunk of time reading Richard Russo last summer.
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