Richard Russo's Trajectory Hits the Target

By Richard Russo
Alfred A. Knopf, 243 pages.

Readers of this blog know that I am a big fan of author Richard Russo. They also know I am not a fan of short fiction. This raises the question of how I’d feel about a collection of short stories from Russo. Answer: Pretty good. Russo is such a gifted writer that I suspect he could generate interest if he penned the ingredients in haggis.

It certainly helps that the tales in Trajectory are closer to novellas than to conventional short stories. There are just four spread across 243 pages, which affords Russo more space for his characters to breathe and develop. But first, let’s muse on the title. The hardcover dust jacket sports a single archery target set against a wooded backdrop. The implication is that a well-drawn arrow fired toward the target will either land in or around the bull’s-eye, but that an errant shaft has a good chance of being lost in the forest. As any archer knows, the slightest quiver, twitch, or loss of focus alters the outcome. Sometimes, so does luck. These are precisely the scenarios played out in Trajectory. Complexity is layered into the narratives via protagonists who occupy a middle position between contrasting characters whose trajectories direct them toward success or failure.

“The Horseman” juxtaposes a smart but inhibited play-it-safe English professor between a student caught plagiarizing, family pressure, and a burnt-out colleague on one hand, and her imposing but misunderstood former mentor on the other. It is one of the better looks at academic insecurity I have ever read. To add a personal note, every professor I’ve ever respected has felt like a fraud at some point—and it’s a fear I certainly experienced.

“Voice” follows a different scholar to Venice, where he must confront a mistake, ageing, a resentful brother, a sad widower, and two enigmatic women. Is there a better place to explore feeling lost than labyrinthine Venice?

The sands of time also get a workout in the remaining stories. “Intervention” is set amidst the wreckage of the housing market collapse and manages to connect that debacle to deep family dynamics, sidetracked dreams, failed expectations, and successes that feel like failures. “Milton and Marcus” finds an unnamed writer torn between the thrill of the chase and his own grasp on reality when Hollywood courts him as a script doctor for a proposed blockbuster. He is appropriately anonymous as the writer is a bit player in a game he knows he can’t win: “It’s all bullshit and you know it, just as you know that in due course you’ll be fired, though probably not by the people flattering you now.” He’s also caught between the demands of a prima donna director and the memory of a deceased friend: an actor for whom he wrote the first treatment of the script in question a decade earlier. This one comes off as a cautionary allegory and serves as a devastating takedown of the vacuity, amorality, airbrushed mountebanks, and flea-like attention span of modern celebrity. But would you join the Big Dance of money, posturing, and positioning?

Many of the things that make Russo a great writer are on display in Trajectory: his poignancy, his facility with stripping emotions to their core and conveying them in ways that hit home, the manner in which he universalizes individual drama, and the skill with which he presents pathos and pulls back before it becomes bathos. There’s always a tinge of hope amidst the darkness in a Russo tale. Also humor, but of the nuanced kind that makes you chuckle just before you say, “Ouch!” Russo is like that—sort of like taking a stroll in a tranquil glade just before a wayward arrow whizzes past your head.

Rob Weir


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