In Praise of Richard Russo
Posted by: Neil Hollands
While casting about for topics for Book Group Buzz today, it occurred to me that I’ve never written here about the author who is perhaps my favorite contemporary American writer, Richard Russo.
Now seven novels and one book of stories into his career, Russo has yet to produce a book that isn’t worthy of book group selection, and his best work is simply stellar. Almost all of his writing is semi-autobiographical, but while many of his novels mine common themes, each is ultimately something all its own.
Russo’s most frequent theme is the relationship between children and their parents and the echoes that early family interactions continue to have even in our adult lives. Father-son relationships are key to The Risk Pool and Nobody’s Fool, with the son getting a little older in each installment. Relationships with two adult parents are central to Straight Man and Russo’s most recent novel That Old Cape Magic.
His settings are usually the small cities of the American northeast, where he captures the ambience perfectly–a sort of sprung sense of community, where a certain amount of neighborliness lingers on despite the challenges that people have getting along with each other. The Risk Pool, Nobody’s Fool, and Empire Falls all contain masterly depictions of such towns.
Another frequent Russo touchpoint is academia, where he skewers snobbery and dysfunctional faculty relationships with glee. Straight Man, set in the English department of a small Pennsylvania college, is Russo’s most laugh-out-loud funny book. where ducks and an unhappy prostate gland make for surprising comic glee. That Old Cape Magic captures the crotchety unhappiness of academics trapped at minor universities to curmudgeonly perfection.
The surest way to book club success is to pick books with believable characters, and in this regard, Russo never disappoints. His characters are beautifully imperfect, equal parts funny, miserable, persistent, and charming, or in a word, real.
In addition to the titles that I’ve mentioned, you also won’t go wrong with Bridge of Sighs or Mohawk. Nobody’s Fool and Straight Man top my personal list of Russo favorites, but the internal competition is stiff here: Empire Falls, for instance, won a Pulitzer Prize.
For a sample, two films of Russo works capture his tone pretty well. Nobody’s Fool features Paul Newman, Bruce Willis, Jessica Tandy, and Melanie Griffith. Empire Falls isn’t quite as good as the book, but the HBO miniseries, adapted by Russo himself and featuring Ed Harris, Helen Hunt, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, is still worth your viewing time.