How could 23 years have slipped by since Richard Russo published “Nobody’s Fool”? Was is really in some previous century that we snorted and sniffled over the rambling adventures of Donald “Sully” Sullivan, the wisecracking, self-destructive 60-year-old contractor who rarely lets a bar stool cool? It all seems so disorientingly recent. . . . Who’s the fool now?
Even if you didn’t read that big-hearted novel, you probably saw the wonderful film version starring Paul Newman and Jessica Tandy — both, alas, long gone. Set in the moribund town of North Bath, N.Y., “Nobody’s Fool” demonstrated the full range of Russo’s humor and his ear for the baseline tragedy that runs through these working-class lives. Later, those tones came into exquisite balance in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Empire Falls” (2001), but the characters of “Nobody’s Fool” still hold their own wacky charm, and it’s a delight to join them again in Russo’s sequel, “Everybody’s Fool.”
A decade has passed in North Bath, and it’s been a deadly one. Death, in fact, is the crucible of Russo’s comedy. The novel opens at a burial service in the drab Hilldale cemetery where a local judge is being interred. Standing by the gravesite is the police chief, Douglas Raymer, just a minor character in “Nobody’s Fool” but now the luckless, misanthropic hero of the new novel. (To pile on another loss, Raymer was played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the movie.) The first four chapters — a 70-page virtuoso performance — take place in real time, entirely during the minister’s vacuous eulogy. While the mourners sweat in their Sunday best, Russo lays out the whole doomed town, the ugly sibling of super-successful Schuyler Springs right next door. No fan of the dead judge and his “scrotum-shrinking judicial gaze of disapproval,” Chief Raymer lets his mind drift from the funeral as he recalls the advice of his late, great eighth-grade English teacher, who always saw more substance in Raymer than he could see in himself. And he’s trying hard not to look at the nearby grave of his wife, Becka, who died a year ago while trying to run away from their marriage.
Three dead — and we’re just getting started. But that’s the abiding wonder of Russo’s novel, which bears down on two calamitous days and exploits the action in every single minute. From the cemetery, this ramshackle plot quickly starts grabbing at mudslides, grave robbery, collapsing buildings, poisonous snakes, drug deals, arson, lightning strikes and toxic goo. North Bath is a sleepy little town that never sleeps.
That’s a testament to Russo’s narrative skill, which keeps all of these characters careening through a long book devoted to a very short period of time. His success stems largely from the fact that no tangent ever feels tangential in these pages, even if Russo sometimes leans too heavily on his sad-sack shtick. There’s Carl, the oversexed but impotent contractor whose plans to salvage his business are clearly doomed. Sully is still here, too, although his heart could give out at any moment, a death sentence that makes him even more reckless. And Rub, the simple-minded handyman, is willing to endure a torrent of humiliation just to enjoy a bit of Sully’s wavering attention.
The novel’s focus, though, keeps returning to Police Chief Raymer, a man with an uncanny ability to disgrace himself in the line of duty. (His misprinted business cards carry the tagline “We’re not happy until you’re not happy.”) During one of his legendary blunders, he shot at an elderly woman sitting on the toilet. His more elaborately engineered pratfalls — falling into holes, sliding down collapsing poles — are a reminder that Russo is probably the best writer of physical comedy that we have. But while the citizens of Bath (and we) are laughing at Raymer, the poor police chief is swelling with despair. He’s still shocked by his wife’s death and the revelation of her adultery. That double punch has preyed on his already low confidence all year, even as he secretly devotes himself to tracking down his wife’s lover. “Raymer had always been tortured by self-doubt,” Russo writes. “Since losing Becka, he had come unmoored. Somewhere along the line he’d lost not only his wife but his faith in justice, in both this world and the next.”
This being essentially a comedy, it shouldn’t surprise you that Raymer will eventually find his faith — and a new love interest. But getting there will involve considerable darkness. Even the zaniest elements of the story are interspersed with episodes of wincing cruelty. If some of North Bath’s poorly educated, underemployed men have settled into lives of social drinking, tall tales and goofy escapades, others have devolved into hard-core addiction and guilt-free savagery. Women fare particularly badly in this world: The lucky ones are abandoned; the others are mocked, beaten and worse.
The notable exception is Raymer’s assistant, Charice, a sassy black woman who would be right at home on any number of TV comedies that have trafficked in that worn-out trope. Charice needles Raymer with lines like, “You think I’m gonna scare the mayor’s wife? Me being black and all?” Raymer is a good man, self-conscious of his white privilege and nervous about his lingering prejudices, but there’s something forced about the story’s treatment of this biracial relationship — particularly in a book that’s so sensitive to the mingled strands of poignancy, affection and bluster in male friendships. Every other element of the sprawling plot enjoys the benefit of exhaustive examination and digression, but in the final rush to engineer a happy future, the attraction between Charice and Raymer seems too quickly finessed.
Would it be foolish to ask for a third trip to North Bath?
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
On Monday, May 9 at 7 p.m., Richard Russo will be at Politics & Prose, 5015 Conn. Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008.
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By Richard Russo
Knopf. 496 pp. $27.95