Somebody’s Fool: A novel, by Richard Russo (Knopf, 465 pp., $29)
The novelist and critic Gore Vidal described the diverging paths of the American novel in a 1974 essay in which he observed that writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and Thomas Wolfe wrote traditional “public novels” for a wide (though dwindling) audience. More recently, a new type of fiction, the “university novel,” had emerged, produced by the expanding ranks of scholar/novelists employed by college English departments. Vidal scathingly described these works as “parthenogenesis novels intended only for the classroom”—books rarely read by general audiences, who found them irrelevant to their lives. Into this burgeoning genre he bundled the works of American followers of the French New Novel—Donald Barthelme and John Barth, for instance.
Years later Tom Wolfe, in response to a question at an event commemorating the 25th anniversary of The Bonfire of the Vanities, said that he’d put aside the style of nonfiction known as the New Journalism, which had given us everything from Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers to The Right Stuff, to take up writing traditional novels because he was so distressed at how American fiction had veered away from the issues that mattered to readers. Indeed, the rise of the U-novels, as Vidal called them, which often took the university as a metaphor for the universe, couldn’t have come at a worse time, given the pace of change in modern life and the challenges it created for ordinary people. Among the many whose stories have increasingly been ignored by what now passes for serious fiction are America’s working classes, who have progressively struggled to find a place in the twenty-first-century economy and social order.
One happy exception is the novelist Richard Russo, who started out trying to establish a career as a professor/novelist but discovered that what really interested readers were his stories about growing up with an often-absent father in a declining upstate New York manufacturing community filled with struggling but memorable characters whom some might call “deplorables.” Russo, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls, the tale of a New England mill town and its down-on-their-luck residents, has now returned with his tenth novel, Somebody’s Fool. It’s the third book in a trilogy about upstate New York’s fictional North Bath, a town that first appeared in Russo’s touching comic novel Nobody’s Fool, whose main character, the irascible yet still somehow lovable Donald “Sully” Sullivan, bears striking resemblance to the father Russo says came in and out of his life.
In Nobody’s Fool, Sully’s son Peter had grown up in a world circumscribed by his stepfather and especially his mother, who did everything she could to minimize Sully’s influence on her son. He’s escaped Sully’s blue-collar world, earning a Ph.D. in English and a teaching position at a public university. But all is not well, and he returns home for Thanksgiving with a marriage falling apart because he’s been unfaithful, with declining professional prospects after being denied tenure, and with three sons constantly at war with one another. Of all people, it’s Sully who, despite his cantankerous nature and tendency to live outside the norms of his community, brings a measure of order to Peter’s situation, prompting his son to forsake academia and take up “dirty work” with his father, much to his mother’s regret.
In Somebody’s Fool, Sully has now been dead for years, but Peter remains in North Bath, where his father’s influence over his life remains powerful. Before he died, Sully gave Peter a list of people he should keep an eye on—all marginalized, struggling residents whom Sully himself had helped and worried about on his deathbed. The town’s prospects and resources have declined so precipitously that North Bath is about to be consolidated into its richer, yuppified neighboring town, Schuyler Springs (which resembles the real Saratoga Springs). Facing the indignity of absorption into a community of expensive homes, trendsetting restaurants, and Starbucks-slurping professionals, North Bath’s residents watch their elementary schools close, the police department disappear, and the town council vanish. Few think the changes will benefit their community—and even if they do, it will only serve to make the taxes unaffordable, they worry.
People in Russo’s upstate New York novels, which include Mohawk, The Risk Pool, and Bridge of Sighs, nearly always struggle to make a living, mostly with their hands. Sully was the quintessential dirty-jobs guy, digging a ditch to replace rotting water pipes, refurbishing old homes, pilfering his boss’s plow so he can earn some side money removing snow. His sidekick Rub Squeers, hapless but also industrious, freelanced with Sully, works a backhoe digging graves at the cemetery, and drives a tow truck. Birdie, who can neither find a buyer for her White Horse Tavern nor afford to retire, soldiers on amid her aches and pains in an establishment that’s “on a respirator,” kept alive by an investment Peter made with money Sully left him. Ruth, Sully’s long-time paramour, takes over the town’s diner, which barely provides a living for her and her daughter. Ruth’s granddaughter, Tina, finds her passion in running her deceased grandfather’s salvage business, which she, alone among the inhabitants of Russo’s North Bath novels, manages to turn into a successful enterprise because of her eccentric eye for other people’s junk that someone else might want to buy.
The challenges of forming relationships and raising children in a hardscrabble world emerge as a central theme of Russo’s stories—including Somebody’s Fool. Together, Peter and Sully managed to reclaim Peter’s oldest and most troubled child, Will, who is now off, ironically, in a world of which his grandmother would have approved: studying on a Fulbright Fellowship in England. But that success came at a cost. While Peter stayed in North Bath with Will, his embittered wife took their younger sons Thomas and Andy back to West Virginia, where they struggled in a life of increasing poverty punctuated by the bad choices—a persistent Russo theme—that their mother made in men. Peter, who wonders how the boys are doing, gets a disquieting answer when Thomas shows up in North Bath as a hard young man with a short fuse and a reputation for run-ins with the law. Andy is worse off, confused about his identity, now calling himself Andrea as he struggles with gender dysphoria. “He never stopped believing you’d come for us,” Thomas tells Peter.
Much of the plot of Somebody’s Fool revolves around the hot-tempered Thomas’s encounters with some of upstate New York’s seedier characters—including crooked cops—which leave him at death’s door in a hospital. It’s there that the guilt-ridden Peter talks about a “fresh start” with his younger sons. When Thomas asks how that’s even possible, Peter exhumes a favorite line of his father’s, who confronted life’s problems with pragmatism: “We’ll try something. If that doesn’t work, we’ll try something else,” Peter says. It’s a characteristic moment in Russo novels, which offer no miraculous escapes, no entirely happy endings—just moments that Russo likens to the Christian notion of grace, where characters are “visited by small gifts.”
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.
Photo by Vince Talotta/Toronto Star via Getty Images