Book Review – Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo
Richard Russo sits pretty much at the apex of American literature. Much beloved, Pulitzer-garlanded and graced with a 20 year history of almost unanimously acclaimed novels of small town America and their hopeful, flawed, damaged and occasionally lovable inhabitants.
The precursor to Everybody’s Fool, published in 1993, was titled Nobody’s Fool and introduced the untameable and irascible Sully, a character so memorable that he immediately took his place next the other great and complex men of US letters like Ford’s Frank Bascombe, Bellow’s’ Rabbit Angstrom and Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman and Mickey Sabbath. I have read many of Russo’s other books as well, all cracking with dry wit, wry comment, gentle and sharp-edged humour and the multiple failures and tiny triumphs of an unheralded America. Reading his previous books was always a deep pleasure – wide casts of unusual characters, rope-tangled plots and an an unstinting ear for broken rhythms and slightly dissonant melodies of American dialogue writ small.
But Everybody’s Fool is a mixed bag. So a quick setup, and then what I believe to be its successes and failures.
The anti-hero of the previous novel, Sully, is relegated to a supporting role in this book. He is now 70, in ill-health and more temperate as he tries to find a way to correct past missteps, to give love another chance and to live out the remainder of his life with some grace.
A previously minor character, Police Chief Raymer steps up to take centre stage in this novel. He is a marvellous mess of a man, believing firmly that he is more stupid, less competent and less deserving than he actually is. He is widowed and hobbled by his belief that his late wife was having an affair. After her death he finds a garage opener among her effects, This becomes the novel’s McGuffin as he tries to find the garage door that it opens, there to presumably identify the man who stole her affections. And the complications that follow, oh my! A venomous snake, a grave robbing, a central character struck by lighting, a dog who gnaws at his bleeding penis, a seriously paranoid black policeman with a Red mustang, a butterfly-tattooed butt cheek, a collapsed building, a severed ear, unidentified toxic sludge oozing out of the ground, and a huge cast of drunks and losers. And that’s just a sample. These jigsaw pieces all come together neatly in the final few rollocking chapters.
Everybody’s Fool succeeds as a literary madcap plot, spinning hither and thither but holding onto its central theme of the search for love and dignity even amongst the most failed and desperate of souls. It’s dialogue is masterful, and the writing floats effortlessly even as it boasts its literary credentials.
But it fails elsewhere. Sully’s journey is a disappointment – he is less interesting as a fading old man than he was as the unpredictable and aggressive grouch of the earlier novel. And the Sully story runs basically parallel to the Raymer story – their intersections and overlaps are a bit forced. It is basically two books, and this dilutes the whole. There are other lapses – a cartoon-like bad guy and some lengthy character backstories which add little to the whole.
When Woody Allen makes a film I always see it, I have never missed one. He often does not succeed, some are awful. But making the pilgrimage the cinema is just something that needs be done. Allen’s voice should be heard – because even at its worst, there are moments of brilliance that make it worthwhile.
So it is with Richard Russo.