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Somebody's Fool


Somebody's Fool

The summer of 2023 already has produced one novel written by a Pulitzer Prize winner whose first name is Richard that brings to a close a series featuring a distinctive recurring character. Now, with Richard Russo’s return to the downtrodden upstate New York town of North Bath, he does the same with the trilogy he began in 1993. Unlike Richard Ford’s very much alive Frank Bascombe, Russo’s Donald “Sully” Sullivan is gone, but his spirit dominates this wry, compassionate concluding chapter.

Amid the Great Recession of 2008-09 and a debt-fueled spending spree engineered by its mayor, North Bath has suffered the indignity of annexation by its tonier neighbor, Schuyler Springs. The town’s citizens --- most prominent among them Chief of Police Doug Raymer --- seem to have accepted their fate with a characteristic air of resignation.

Raymer, who passed on the opportunity to lead a merged department in favor of Charice Bond, his colleague and lover for a decade, is struggling to deal with a timeout in their relationship. He also must contend with the presence of her brother, Jerome (“Bond. Jerome Bond,” as he’s fond of saying in a nod to his fictional idol), his late wife’s lover, as an involuntary and unwelcome roommate.

"[These characters are] living, breathing and overwhelmingly sympathetic human beings. If this is Russo’s farewell to them and North Bath, he has left us with many fond memories."

Sully’s son Peter, a divorced father of three sons who returned to North Bath to care for his father after the latter was involved in an alcohol-fueled automobile accident, is waist-deep in a world he’s been trying all his life to flee. He’s a man who “managed to convey to everyone that his life was a game he was playing under protest, one he expected to be upheld when his case was finally heard.”

But now Sully must reckon with the sudden appearance of his estranged son. Thomas claims he’s only making a quick stop in North Bath on his way to Montreal from the West Virginia home where he and his younger brother were raised by Peter’s ex-wife. Instead, he may have returned with more sinister plans.

Russo doesn’t assume any familiarity with these or any of the other characters from the previous Fool novels. But their readers will instantly recognize people like Sully’s worldly wise lover Ruth and her daughter Janey, who maintains her impeccable record for choosing unsuitable, dangerous men as romantic partners, and Sully’s old sidekick Rub Squeers, adrift since the passage of his dubious mentor and drinking companion.

Over this mélange of personal and emotional dysfunction hovers the spirit of Sully, who has given Peter a list of people he wants him to check in on. A list that “kept expanding” provides Peter with plenty to do on top of the responsibilities of his part-time teaching job and his work renovating the house where Sully lived at the time of Sully's death. But Thomas’ arrival is something that even Sully couldn’t foresee. “Do some f***ing thing. If that doesn’t work, do something else” was the Sullivan patriarch’s motto, an injunction that seems to sum up the way all these characters are living their lives, with the at best intermittent success predictable when applying that makeshift philosophy. All the same, as Peter’s empathy for the damaged people around him grows, so does ours.

As he did in EVERYBODY’S FOOL, Russo operates in a tight time frame --- a snowy February weekend he somehow manages to pack with an impressive flow of action and drama. There are a couple of brawls, some egregious police misconduct and an incipient cover-up, a car that’s consumed in a spectacular conflagration and barstools that turn out to be especially dangerous perches. Racial and gender politics are in play in Charice and Jerome’s story, and while Russo makes no secret of his sympathies, these cards are dealt more subtly.

Early in the novel, Russo injects a promising mystery in the discovery of the body of a suicide in the long-abandoned Sans Souci, once a luxury hotel, whose rumored wealthy purchasers shift from week to week. Though it’s never truly a distraction from the swirl of shifting relationships that drive the story, it easily could have been excised without damaging its appeal.

For all its many serious moments, as Russo remarked in a 2016 interview, he “learned from Twain that if you’re going to go to dark places, you’d best go armed with humor,” and there are many examples of his comic gifts. “If ever there was a man who stood to benefit from self-doubt, that man lay stretched out before him” is his summing up of Carl Roebuck, the ex-husband of Peter’s occasional bed partner, Toby, in a single biting sentence. Jerome “sounded like William F. Buckley would have if he’d been kidnapped and held captive for a month in the front pew of a Southern Baptist church.”

SOMEBODY’S FOOL is a story of acceptance and reconciliation, or at least the striving toward those goals. That’s true of the complicated relationships between Peter and Thomas, Ruth and Janey, Janey and her daughter Tina, Doug and Charice, and the Bond siblings that he juggles adroitly. He’s frank in his assessments of these characters but never condescending. He knows them, the places they inhabit, and the challenges they face in his bones.

In the aforementioned interview, Russo observed that he has found himself drawn to the stories of people living in small towns like the one where he grew up because “the larger world was ignoring these folks, the lives they led, their struggles to find dignity in hard work and family, their kindness and modesty.” These are not the small-town grotesques of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, or the inhabitants of “flyover country” dismissed by some of America’s urbanites, but living, breathing and overwhelmingly sympathetic human beings. If this is Russo’s farewell to them and North Bath, he has left us with many fond memories.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on July 28, 2023

Somebody's Fool
by Richard Russo

  • Publication Date: July 25, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0593317890
  • ISBN-13: 9780593317891