We made it through another Christmas. It was foggy and rainy: too wet for a walk, so we went to the gym. And then we got out the books we bought at Barnes and Noble for our gift exchange. They say you can’t read all the time–my father said reading made me a “non-participant in life”–but I say, You Can and It Didn’t.
I am racing through Richard Russo’s brilliant new novel, Everybody’s Fool, a sequel to Nobody’s Fool. (You probably saw the great movie Nobody’s Fool, with Paul Newman, Bruce Willis, and Melanie Griffith.)
Russo’s new comedy, a pitch-perfect multi-character saga, is set in North Bath, New York, a run-down small town. (And I guarantee it was never visited by Garrison Keillor!) Russo chronicles the lives of barflies, misfits, and romance readers, the barely middle-class and the downwardly-mobile. Residents envy nearby Schuyler Springs, a prosperous sister town that is a tourist destination and has three colleges. But even the springs in Bath have dried up. (They’re still bubbling in Schuyler Springs.) And a horrible sewage-like stench has settled over Bath. What IS it?
The rich cast of characters is endlessly fascinating. Sully, the hero of Nobody’s Fool, is 70 years old now, living in a trailer outside the house he inherited from his eighth-grade English teacher, Beryl Peabody. He has a heart condition, but refuses to have surgery: if he has only a year or two to live, he wants to go out with a bang. His old girlfriend, Ruth, the owner of Hattie’s diner, sees him every day and still occasionally has sex with him, but is focused on family problems: she is furious that her obese husband, a junk scavenger, has installed an airplane-hangar-size shed in their yard, with the help of Sully, and terrifed by the violence of her daughter Janey’s ex-husband Roy, just out of prison.
My favorite character is Raymer, the policeman who was Sully’s nemesis in the first book. He has been elected chief of police, in spite of a campaign slogan malapropism that said, “We’re not happy till you’re not happy.” Raymer is depressed and a recent widower: his beautiful wife, Becca, tripped down the stairs and broke her neck when she was leaving him for a lover she never identified. Raymer didn’t have a clue she was unfaithful until she found her good-bye note. With the help of a strange garage door opener found in Becca’s car, he hopes to point and click his way to her lover. But then he faints at a funeral and falls in the grave and loses the garage door opener. He will do anything to retrieve it…
This book is funny, sad, and charming…and I must admit, terrifying when Russo reveals the consciousness of Roy the ex-con. Russo is one of the best American writers working today, and though he won the Pulitzer for Empire Falls, he is underrated. I agree with T. C. Boyle’s reveiw in The New York Times Book Review:
Nonetheless, taken together, at over 1,000 pages, the two “Fool” books represent an enormous achievement, creating a world as richly detailed as the one we step into each day of our lives. Bath is real, Sully is real, and so is Hattie’s and the White Horse Tavern and Miss Peoples’s house on Main, and I can only hope we haven’t seen the last of them. I’d love to see what Sully’s going to be up to at 80.