Book Review: ‘Somebody’s Fool,’ by Richard Russo

by Joe Holman
Book Review: ‘Somebody’s Fool,’ by Richard Russo

SOMEBODY’S FOOL, by Richard Russo

Welcome back to North Bath, scrappy sibling to the larger, wealthier Schuyler Springs, down the road in woodsy upstate New York. While Schuyler Springs is famous for wine bars, pricey restaurants and a racetrack, North Bath (or “Bath”) prides itself on a rustic vibe, greasy spoons and scrapyards and grand Victorian fixer-uppers. Here everyone knows your name. Burgers and pitchers of beer are just a stroll away, and bed-hopping is a town sport.

Except that North Bath has been annexed by Schuyler Springs — and this is the narrative linchpin to Richard Russo’s sumptuous, spirited “Somebody’s Fool,” the final installment in a trilogy that maps the life and legacy of one Donald “Sully” Sullivan, an Everyman with a passel of troubles and a knack for making them worse.

Set over three days in February 2010, the novel opens with a bleak snapshot: The recession has wreaked havoc on local businesses and families. Sully’s been gone a decade, felled by a heart attack, but his survivors — his professor son, Peter; his paramour, Ruth, and her volatile daughter and granddaughter; his awkward friend, Rub — conjure the ghost of the figure they adored and resented. Russo reprises the cast from “Nobody’s Fool” (1993) and “Everybody’s Fool” (2016), framing their foibles as social comedy in the mode of Charles Portis or Charles Dickens. (There’s an allusion to “Great Expectations.”) As with both authors, tumult brews beneath sunny surfaces.

Russo’s characters are caught in limbo. Scratch their psychic scabs — which he does, again and again — and rage and sorrow spill out. They give neighbors the “stink eye.” They betray partners through sex and grifts, rebounding with a shrug. They sneer at the local newspaper, the “Schuyler Democrat, which people in Bath referred to as the Dumb-o-crat because of its left-leaning opinion pages.”

This is Trump country, pre-Trump. Doug Raymer, Bath’s misfit police chief, boxes up his office only to find he’s now reporting to Schuyler Springs’ chief, Charice Bond, his former crackerjack administrator and part-time lover. An interracial couple — he’s 52, white and dumpy; she’s Black, younger and acerbic — they’re a magnet for latent (and not-so-latent) racism. Birdie, the proprietor of the White Horse Tavern, which is more “Cheers” bar than literary watering hole, struggles to make ends meet. The same goes for Janey, who runs a popular restaurant.

No small-town drama is complete without a corpse. Doug and Charice investigate a suspicious death at the boarded-up Sans Souci hotel, under contract to new owners with big plans. Doug has thoughts about how this person’s life ended. Stories whorl around one another, then merge. Russo cycles through an array of techniques and perspectives, including expert use of third person and even a young man’s profanity-laced letters; the flow is smooth, like “a shot of Jack … like velvet.”

Neglected by Sully in his youth, Peter had established a relationship with his father later, when Sully bonded with Peter’s oldest son, Will. Peter, too, yearns for a future away from Bath, but then discovers his estranged middle son, Thomas, on his porch, throwing a wrench into his plans. From here, Russo amplifies signature themes, including the emotional baggage carried by parent and child and the level of education as a marker of status and worth.

There are scattered potholes in Russo’s plot, which he patches with back story; we need not consult the other “Fool” volumes. Some chapters feel burdened with detail, and a few flashbacks are confusing, with scenes planted uneasily within scenes. And yet these characters’ interlocking fates move confidently toward resolution.

Ruth seeks to get over her adulterous romance with Sully. Peter’s cool reserve thaws, nudging the door to intimacy. Doug is the novel’s moral compass; Russo digs deep into the cop’s “seemingly congenital inability to surrender hope.” He and Charice pause their relationship while she maneuvers through fresh duties and animosity in her force. He does his utmost to support her, but fails to grasp the challenges she faces each day. He clings to the possibility they can settle down and become a family.

In Russo’s hands these intentions — and the expectations and forgiveness of others — are fine brushes and a palette. He paints a shining fresco of a working-class community, warts and all, a 30-year project come to fruition in this last, best book. What happens in North Bath doesn’t stay in North Bath. And the trilogy’s true protagonist still inspires loved ones from beyond the grave. When Rub finds himself in a pickle, he summons Sully’s voice — and the dead man answers: “Untroubled by self-doubt, unafraid to be wrong and immune to after-the-fact criticism, Sully was Rub’s polar opposite and exactly what his present circumstances called for.”

Hamilton Cain is a book critic and the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing.”

SOMEBODY’S FOOL | By Richard Russo | 464 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $29

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