Nobody's Fool (Russo)

Nobody's Fool
Richard Russo, 1993
Knopf Doubleday
560 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780679753339

In this slyly funny and moving novel, Russo follows the unexpected operation of grace in a deadbeat, upstate New York town—and in the lives of the unluckiest of its citizens. (From the publisher.)

Sully, a man who has never personally met with good luck, is in pain and jobless. He works, but gets paid under the table because his disability case has not yet come up in court. He deals with his ex-wife, his landlady, his soon to be ex-girlfriend, and his son while suffering his knee pain.

In this intricately woven novel, Russo allows readers to enjoy its humor while appreciating the stark realities of the lives that people it. While Russo won the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls (2001), many people still consider this to be their favorite of his works. (J.P. from AudioFile.)

Author Bio 
Birth—July 15, 1949
Where—Johnstown, New York, USA
Education—B.A., M.F. A. and Ph.D., University of Arizona
Awards—Pulitzer Prize
Currently—lives in Camden, Maine

Prizewinning author Richard Russo is regarded by many critics as the best writer about small-town America since Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis. "He doesn't over-sentimentalize [small towns]," said Maureen Corrigan, the book critic for NPR's "Fresh Air." Nor does he belittle the dreams and hardships of his working-class characters. "I come from a blue-collar family myself and I think he gets the class interactions; he just really nails class in his novels," said Corrigan.

When Russo left his own native small town in upstate New York, it was with hopes of becoming a college professor. But during his graduate studies, he began to have second thoughts about the academic life. While finishing up his doctorate, he took a creative writing class; and a new career path opened in front of him.

Russo's first novel set the tone for much of his later work. The story of an ailing industrial town and the interwoven lives of its inhabitants, Mohawk won critical praise for its witty, engaging style. In subsequent books, he has brought us a dazzling cast of characters, mostly working-class men and women who are struggling with the problems of everyday life (poor health, unemployment, mounting bills, failed marriages) in dilapidated, claustrophobic burghs that have—like their denizens—seen better days. In 2001, Russo received the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls, a brilliant, tragicomic set-piece that explores past and present relationships in a once-thriving Maine town whose textile mill and shirt factory have gone bust.

Russo's vision of America would be bleak, except for the wit and optimism he infuses into his stories. Even when his characters are less than lovable, they are funny, rueful, and unfailingly human. "There's a version of myself that I still see in a kind of alternative universe and it's some small town in upstate New York or someplace like that," Russo said in an interview. That ability to envision himself in the bars and diners of small-town America has served him well. "After the last sentence is read, the reader continues to see Russo's tender, messed-up people coming out of doorways, lurching through life," said the fiction writer Annie Proulx. "And keeps on seeing them because they are as real as we are."

From a 2005 Barnes & Noble interview:

• In 1994, Russo's book Nobody's Fool was made into a movie starring Paul Newman and Bruce Willis. Newman also starred in the 1998 movie Twilight, for which Russo wrote the screenplay. Russo now divides his time between writing fiction and writing for the movies.

• When he wrote his first books, Russo was employed full-time as a college teacher and would stop at the local diner between classes to work on his novels. After the success of Nobody's Food (the book and movie), he was able to quit teaching—but he still likes to write in tight spots, such as the Camden Deli. It's "a less lonely way to write," he told USA Today. "I'm less self-conscious when it's not so quiet."

When asked what his favorite books are, he offered this list:

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens—All of Dickens, really. The breadth of his canvas, the importance he places on vivid minor characters, his understanding that comedy is serious business. And in the character of Pip, I learned, even before I understood I'd learned it, that we recognize ourselves in a character's weakness as much than his strength. When Pip is ashamed of Joe, the best man he knows, we see ourselves, and it's terrible, hard-won knowledge. 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain—Twain's great novel demonstrates that you can go to the very darkest places if you're armed with a sense of humor. His study of American bigotry, ignorance, arrogance, and violence remains so fresh today, alas, because human nature remains pretty constant. I understand the contemporary controversy, of course. Huck's discovery that Jim is a man is hardly a blinding revelation to black readers, but the idea that much of what we've been taught by people in authority is a crock should resonate with everybody. Especially these days.  

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald—Mostly, I suppose, because his concerns -- class, money, the invention of self -- are so central to the American experience. Fitzgerald understood that our most vivid dreams are often rooted in self-doubt and weakness. Many people imagine that we identify with strength and virtue. Fitzgerald knew better.

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck—For the beauty of the book's omniscience. It's fine for writers to be humble. Most of us have a lot to be humble about. But it does you no good to be timid. Pretend to be God? Why not? (Bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews
Small towns, like seagoing vessels, have always suited fiction: manageable little pressure cookers with a fixed cast of characters, whose lack of privacy and enforced proximity may cause the plot to boil over.... One wants to congratulate Mr. Russo for what he avoids. Nobody's Fool never slides into the corn-pone hokiness so often found in novels of small-town life, fiction in which the rural setting is either a Walker Evans photo or Dogpatch. In these books, the characters talk as if they were auditioning for the Henry Fonda part in The Grapes of Wrath. But dialogue is what Mr. Russo does best, and the fun of this novel is in hearing these guys (and women) talk, giving one another a hard time— they're funny, quick and inventive.
Francine Prose - New York Time

Sully is reminiscent, in a way, of Bellow's old men.... One never tires of watching him, because he has the capacity to make everyone around him feel better, including the reader.
The New Yorker

Sixty-year-old Sully is "nobody's fool," except maybe his own. Out of work (undeclared-income work is what he does, when he can), down to his last few bucks, hampered by an arthritic broken knee, Sully is worried that he's started on a run of bad luck. And he has. The banker son of his octogenarian landlady wants him evicted; Sully's estranged son comes home for Thanksgiving only to have his wife split; Sully's own high-strung ex-wife seems headed for a nervous breakdown; and his longtime lover is blaming him for her daughter's winding up in the hospital with a busted jaw. But Sully's biggest problem is the memory of his own abusive father, a ghost who haunts his every day. As he demonstrated in Mohawk (Random, 1986) and The Risk Pool (Random, 1989), Russo knows the small towns of upstate New York and the people who inhabit them; he writes with humor and compassion. A delight. —Charles Michaud, Turner Free Lib., Randolph, MA
Library Journal

Discussion Questions
1. This novel's title, Nobody's Fool, is a punning reference to its protagonist, Donald Sullivan, who at age 60 is "divorced from his own wife, carrying on halfheartedly with another man's, estranged from his son, devoid of self-knowledge, badly crippled and virtually unemployable—all of which he stubbornly confuse[s] with independence." Why is Sully so insistent on remaining nobody's fool? How has this determination affected his relationships with other people?

2. One consequence of Sully's prickly autonomy is his tendency to go off on "stupid streaks." Is Sully a stupid man? How would you evaluate a freedom whose defining characteristic seems to be the freedom to do the wrong thing at the wrong time?

3. From the beginning we know that Sully has a bad knee, and his refusal to treat—or even favor—it generates many of the novel's complications. In what ways does this injury resonate with the novel's theme.

4. Sully's string of misfortunes may also be due to bad luck or malign predestination. Is he destined to be unlucky? To what extent are his actions and character predetermined?

5. Sully's father brutalized him as a child. Sully deserted his son, Peter. Peter abandoned his timid eldest son, Will, to the mercies of his sociopathic little brother. What causes does the author posit for this four-generation history of cruelty and neglect?

6. Perhaps to compensate for Sully's brutal father, Russo supplies Sully with a very good, if somewhat sharp-tongued, surrogate mother, Beryl Peoples. She may, in fact, be the most real and enduring attachment Sully has. How does their relationship compare with Beryl's relationship with her real son, Clive, Jr.? How is the antagonism between Clive and Sully an extension of their childhood rivalry for the affections of Beryl's late husband?

7. How would you characterize Russo's portrayal of relations between the sexes, and why are most of his characters divorced, widowed, or unhappily married?

8. The sudden flashes of good luck (or simple happiness) that illuminate Sully's life and the lives of other characters may be attributable to grace, which The Random House Dictionary of the English Language defines as "the influence or spirit of God operating in humans to regenerate or strengthen them." At what moments does grace seem to operate in this novel?

9. Nobody's Fool is also a novel about a town, North Bath, New York, whose misfortunes, like Sully's, may be due to collective stupidity or fate. Even North Bath's venerable elms now constitute a threat to its communal life and property. In what ways do the novel's principal locales—Hattie's, the OTB, and the White Horse-—function as a microcosm of the town as a whole? To what extent are North Bath's decline and grandiose visions of renewal symptomatic of the political and economic climate of America in the 1980s?

10. What role does class play in this novel? To what extent are its characters shaped by economic circumstances?

11. One critic has described Nobody's Fool as "a sad novel camouflaged in comedy." How is this true? What is the nature of the book's sadness? How does Russo balance his comic and tragic impulses?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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