EVERYBODY'S FOOL (2016)
Knopf, 477 pages
Here's a wile away mental game. Who is on your list of writers of whom you have read at least six of their novels? Aside from a handful of mystery scribblers, my list is short: Margaret Atwood, Charles Dickens, E. L. Doctorow, Thomas Hardy, John Irving, Barbara Kingsolver, Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Twain, and Richard Russo. Only Russo holds the distinction of having never disappointed me. Everybody's Fool kept his record intact. It grabbed me on page one and never relented. That statement is more profound than it seems on the surface, given that Everybody's Fool opens with a long description of/reflection upon the town cemetery! It sets the tone magnificently for the pages that follow–a skillful blend of droll humor, poignant moments, frolicsome hijinks, heartbreaking misconnections, and hopefulness rolled into one sprawling tale.
It's the sequel to Nobody's Fool, but Russo can't be accused of rashly jumping on the Second Act Bandwagon–it's been 23 years since part one. Russo returns to North Bath, New York, to update members of that memorable cast of characters that he hasn't planted in the local cemetery. If you recall Nobody's Fool (or the movie version of it) you'll remember that police officer Doug Raymer foolishly fired upon the book's crusty protagonist, Donald "Sully" Sullivan, a reckless act that led Sully to deck Raymer. Sully is now 70-years-old, sporting a wrecked knee and a bad ticker that could send him to perpetual rest at any moment. He's still the crankiest character since Randle Patrick McMurphy in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, but Everybody's Fool centers more on Raymer, elevated to North Bath police chief.
Locals mostly tolerate Raymer, though few respect him, but they're not accustomed to expecting much. North Bath—widely thought to be modeled on Ballston Spa–is where shit happens, both metaphorically and literally. How unlike its immediate neighbor, Schuyler Springs (Saratoga), with its artsy college, trendy cafes, soaring real estate market, and well-heeled citizenry. Raymer's life parallels that of his town, a place where dreams turn to schemes and fail miserably. Raymer lives alone in a seedy apartment complex, his wife having died in a fall as she was on her way down the stairs to leave him. All Doug has to soothe his hurt is a garage door opener that might be that of her unknown lover. Does Doug want to know who it is? Of course, despite the counsel of his assistant, an attractive and smart black woman named Charice, who often seems like she's coming on to Raymer. If only Doug could be as suave and smooth as her twin brother, Jerome—who, naturally, lives and works in Schuyler.
Sully still holds court at local dinners and bars where locals kvetch about how unfair it is that everything seems to go right in Schuyler, but their litanies have an air of resignation. It's a survivor's game in North Bath—quite different than a thriver's game. Reviewers have been too quick to assume that Raymer is the titular character. In my reading, Russo intends us to muse upon that question, as well as contemplate what constitutes a fool. Raymer has his woes, but he's not alone. Jerome isn't as cool as he seems; Sully's former lover, Ruth, wonders why she's still waitressing and why she's still married to Ralph, a seeming jobless loser supreme who spends his time scavenging every bit of detritus until their home resembles a salvage yard on steroids. But is either a bigger fool than their airhead daughter Janey, who has been inexplicably nice to her ex-husband Roy, just out the penitentiary for a series of burglaries and for breaking Janey's jaw? Is Roy a fool for thinking he has turned his life around, or still a petty con man with a penchant for violence?
Other "fool" candidates include Sully's old friend/nemesis contractor Carl Roebuck, now divorced, teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, reduced to renting a room in the house Sully inherited from his former teacher Beryl Peoples, and, recovering from prostate surgery that has left him impotent. Indeed, wouldn't only a fool worry more about his lost erection than the prospect of losing his company? Or maybe the fool is Sully's hangdog hanger-on friend Rub—he of little brain and fewer prospects. Or maybe it's Sully himself, unexpectedly flush for life thanks to Beryl, but with as much aptitude for living away from life's margins as a kangaroo has for ballet.
Mix this cast of goofballs, goons, malcontents, lovable losers, and disreputable reprobates together with some malapropisms, wisecracks, and bizarre situations. Toss in plot twists that involve dollops of every social problem in the book, including dealers of illegal exotic reptiles, and you've got one heck of a story. Parts of it are highly improbable and, on occasion, North Bath feels so desperate that it's painful to contemplate, but Russo's greatest escape act is to pull us back from the edge through controlled releases of hilarity and hope. There is no current writer who gets the vibe, the rhythms, and the essence of blue-collar life like Richard Russo. Like I said, he has never disappointed me. I ripped through this book faster than Sully could dream up barroom ripostes.