book by Richard Russo
annotation by Diane Sherlock
It was disconcerting to read a novel that came very close to describing someone I grew up with, but Richard Russo does just that in Nobody’s Fool. The title refers to the main character, Sully, Donald Sullivan, a perennially down and out construction worker. Having walked out on his family, he lives in the small town of Bath in New York, upstairs in Miss Beryl’s house. He works off the books for Carl, a contractor, while flirting with Carl’s wife. “Sully – people still remarked – was nobody’s fool, a phrase that Sully no doubt appreciated without ever sensing its literal application – that at sixty, he was divorced from his own wife, carrying on halfheartedly with another man’s, estranged from his son, devoid of self-knowledge, badly crippled and virtually unemployable – all of which he stubbornly confused with independence.” Russo paints a vivid picture of small town life and juggles a number of characters. At 549 pages, a case could be made for editing down some of the tangential stories, but they are all vivid and well written. Sully doesn’t have a substantial character arc and an alarming trend of misleading cover blurbs continues here, leading the reader to look for Sully’s son to follow in his father’s footsteps, which is not really part of the story. The book is divided into three parts, with Part One divided into chapters of one day each: Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday; Part Two contains the following Tuesday and Wednesday; Part Three is one long chapter on Thursday. With the span of only a about a week’s time, Sully is pretty much the same from start to finish. The book begins and ends at Miss Beryl’s house where Sully is a border with little details like a Queen Anne’s chair that is rickety at the beginning, breaks about two thirds of the way through, and is repaired in the final pages, creaking again when Sully sits in it at the end.
Russo has taught me to find significant details for each character. Carl Roebuck is lucky and sleeps with any woman with a pulse. Miss Beryl is a retired schoolteacher: “Her being known in North Bath as “Miss” Beryl derived from the fact that the militantly unteachable eighth-grade schoolchildren she’d instructed for forty years considered he far too odd looking and misshapen to have a husband.” Rub Squeers is painfully stupid and smelly, “Rub still considered attentiveness hateful and exhausting and perverse. And since he knew no one in Bath more alert than Miss Beryl , there was no one he disliked more.” They help the reader hang on to characters when they are absent from the story for awhile and to distinguish characters from each other.
This is a comic novel and mostly succeeds. There are funny and unexpected moments such as when Sully’s estranged son returns to his life while Sully is hitchhiking: “When he got alongside the car, he saw there were three children crowded into the cramped backseat among pillows and stuffed animals, slightly older versions of children he knew from somewhere. The young woman got out and pulled one of the bucket seats forward so Sully could crawl in back, and as he leaned forward and caught a glimpse of the driver it dawned on him who the hell these people were. ‘Shove over, you runts,’ he said, making a face at the children. ‘Make room for Grandpa.’”
The primary reservation I had about the novel was that the language of the narrative is largely cultured and is more in line with the minor character of Sully’s son, Peter, a college professor. Most of the characters are not college educated, so there is a definite disconnect between the tone of the narrative and its subjects. This is only a problem when he employs some but not the entire vernacular – it sounds stilted along the troublesome and erratic use of the n-word. That word seemed more like a political commentary on people who live in small towns, a social put-down perhaps, than an integral part of the story. I think the reason it stuck out is because not a lot of the other dialogue is coarse, even from people who might speak coarsely on a regular basis, so it seemed to come out of nowhere. If it were taken out, the book certainly would not suffer. Quite likely the opposite.
A few days after I finished the book, I learned it had been adapted into a film with Paul Newman (Jessica Tandy’s last). They came perilously close to ruining it, but settled for not capturing the book although Paul Newman makes an interesting and mostly convincing Sully. Most of the screenplay was taken directly out of the book, however Russo has done a great job of creating an entire world that isn’t easily transferred into another medium. His writing is richly textured with a strong sense of place that takes you beyond reading into the feeling that you’ve not only visited the town, but moved in. Like David Lodge, Russo understands that work is a large part of life and explores many facets, from the retired, to the barely working, to the bartenders, cooks, and waitresses, to the professor denied tenure. He gets the details of their lives right, along with their concerns and in that, also delivers a sense of history to the town of Bath. Sully is haunted by the specter of his dead violent alcoholic father, not unlike the father(s) of Pat Conroy’s books without Conroy’s self consciousness.
Two other valuable techniques Russo has mastered are his use of props (Chekov’s gun: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired”) and how he begins and ends his scenes. He has an almost theatrical feel for when to get in and out. To end the funeral scene for one of the minor characters, he ends with Sully as one of the pallbearers, talking to the man next to him: “’Hey, buck up,’ Sully said, putting his arm around Otis’s shoulder and giving him a comforting pat. Only Jocko seemed to notice through his thick glasses that when Sully took his arm away he slipped the rubber alligator he’d bought at Harold’s Automotive World into Otis’s overcoat pocket. ‘You’re such a bad man, Sully,’ Jocko said as they took their positions alongside Hattie’s casket. ‘Okay, everybody,’ Carl Roebuck said as they grabbed hold of the silver handles. ‘On three.’” The paragraph illustrates both the author’s use of props, which is often hilarious, and how he ends a section.
Russo slowly builds, over five hundred pages worth, how many people count on Sully, who appears to be the last person anyone could ever count on. By the end of the novel, numerous interactions with the townspeople, some trivial, some comic, some heartfelt and some very moving, have shown Sully along with the reader, his own worth and with him, the worth of people in general. Russo conveys heartbreaking loss along with comic relief and a sense of hope, providing a rich literary experience.