In the ’90s, Richard Russo delivered two virtually unassailable novels. The second of those was Straight Man, a wildly funny tale of an interim chairman in a college English department. It arrived in 1997. The first was 1993’s Nobody’s Fool, a rich, nuanced (and, yes, funny) novel that introduced us to Donald “Sully” Sullivan.
If fiction lovers of that era craved a character, they got more than they bargained for with Sully. He was the kind of character who populates small towns all over America: smarter than many, more troubled than most and, like the town he called home, North Bath, he was waiting for his luck to change. Haunted by a childhood he seemed incapable of fully escaping, he got by, waiting on some rich reward that wasn’t ever going to be as sweet as he’d imagined. Like most people, one guesses, Sully found a way to be happy with what he had to be happy with, temporary though that happiness may be.
The novel was well-received, popular enough that it was adapted for the screen, starring none other than Paul Newman. Russo handled the adaptation and saw his own fortunes rise in the coming years. He wrote several scripts for the screen and picked up a Pulitzer for his 2001 novel, Empire Falls. His novels remained impeccably written, balancing on a fine line between the hilarious and the heartbreaking.
There were some who no doubt wished he’d return to North Bath for a short visit with Sully, a chance to check on the fortunes of the people bound to North Bath. That kind of return can be a death knell for some writers. It conjures images of Nora Desmond in Sunset Boulevard attempting to reconnect with former glories and only accentuating her sad desperation.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Some writers pull off this feat with grace. Although there were doubters and detractors Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep revisited Danny Torrance, a character from King’s early classic The Shining, and succeeded at telling a different story with a familiar character. It was, in short, a different book. So, too, is Everybody’s Fool, a different book from its predecessor even if there are elements of the familiar.
Sully is back this time. Now 70 and living in the house left to him by his former teacher, Miss Peoples, Sully is still full of the same wisecracks that made him a fascinating study in the first book. He’s lessened some of the burdens in his life, including his father’s house, which haunted him so in the 1993 novel. Bath has seen its share of misfortune, to be sure. We’re told that at the start of the novel as we witness the burial of a judge whose “scrotum-shrinking judicial gaze of disapproval” is never far from Raymer’s mind as he casts his thoughts back on a life of under-achievement in a town that seems to produce little else. The houses are sagging, the very ground on which everyone walks doomed, and there are carcinogens in virtually every air molecule. Carl, the contractor, can’t save his business to save his life; Sully’s fortunes may have improved but his health hasn’t; Rub, Sully’s dimwitted friend from the first novel, isn’t a lick smarter than he was in 1984.
But Sully’s not the primary focus of the story. Instead, our gaze is cast toward Douglas Raymer, a bumbling chief of police who’s bent on identifying his late wife’s lover. Armed with a garage door opener he sees as his passe-partout he goes about solving the mystery. Or trying to. He’s driven more by his heart than by his intellect, and as such becomes imprisoned by the logic of his emotions rather than the logic of the world. It leads him to a series of funny (and sometimes darkly funny) episodes.
Only in Russo’s world could we laugh as hard we do at a man digging up a grave, setting a fire, or being struck by lightning. Only in Russo’s world could we hang as tightly as we do on a belief that misguided fortunes might correct themselves at any given moment and turn life’s cruelties around. The pain that Raymer, despite his limitations, feels is real and so the reader follows him on his misguided errand with the hope that he will find relief.
As with Nobody’s Fool, there are cruelties that are inexplicable: the scourges of alcoholism and addiction of unemployment and poverty and the cruelties of age and forgetting are present and unrelenting for those who suffer from them. Domestic violence is a reality of this town as well, and one that leaves a mark on the souls of its residents. This tempers the laughter that the book inspires, providing us with a stark reminder that fortune comes in gradations. There’s darkness at the corners and, much more so than in Nobody’s Fool, we are asked to contemplate evil via Roy Purdy, a guy in a black hat if ever there was one.
Purdy’s villainy can be a bit hard to take at times, especially because it so clearly rounds the corner of redemption and, at times, threatens to turn the tone of the novel away from its best qualities. This is one of the major criticisms of Everybody’s Fool, along with Russo’s tendencies toward pedestrian humor in racial matters, particularly Raymer’s relationship with Cherice, an African American woman who also teeters on the verge of caricature. Explored on a slightly more nuanced level it may have deepened our appreciation of the story a little more. There’s a tendency here, as in other Russo novels, to race toward a resolution that can leave the reader wanting just a taste more.
Still, those faults are forgivable in the face of a character such as Sully, whose return is as welcome as any character’s in memory. The return trip to Bath is also well worth the time, as it gives the reader a chance to glimpse a world that’s familiar both inside and outside the confines of the novel’s covers. It’s an enjoyable read in which the characters stay with us long after the last punctuation mark and long after we’ve closed the book, gazed at the spine and jacket and longed for just one more sentence to carry us along into what comes next for the people of Russo’s rich imagination.