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06.20.12

Remedial Reader: The Essential Richard Russo

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist of Empire Falls is back with a new novella, and David Masciotra looks at his entire back catalogue to find the hidden gems that showcase what Russo is all about. Plus, more Remedial Readers of Stephen King and John McPhee.

Richard Russo, one of America’s finest novelists, has released a new book, Interventions, printed on sustainably harvested paper and featuring illustrations from his daughter Kate. It contains the title novella and three short stories, two of which are previously unreleased. In the fall, Russo will release a memoir, his first non-fiction book.

Readers familiar with Russo’s most famous works are already aware of the power of his prose and the lasting impact of his storytelling. His 1993 novel, Nobody’s Fool, may be his best book, and it was adapted into a film of the same name, starring Paul Newman in an Academy Award-nominated performance. In 2002, Russo won the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls. HBO made the novel into a mini-series starring Ed Harris, Helen Hunt, and again, Paul Newman. Russo followed Empire Falls with a bravely distinct project—the sweeping epic, Bridge of Sighs.

Except for his latest, That Old Cape Magic, all of Russo’s novels are set in working class small towns. He has proven himself adept at depicting the complexities and contradictions of provincial America with compassion and a good sense of humor.

Russo has said many times that most believe he writes about place, but his true subject is class. Place, Russo contends, is the truest and deepest channel into class issues, especially in a country that too often denies having those issues. His heroes are always picaresque, and they struggle against a hierarchy that seeks, with subtlety or not, to guide, regulate, and ultimately limit the life of the working class. Empire Falls deals with it most directly, but all of Russo’s novels showcase the open wounds that make the gaps of wealth in America so painful and present. He balances the sadness of his work with the hard-earned joy of communal solidarity, familial love, and the uplift and energy bequeathed to people, most often children, by weathered and worn characters insistent on doing the right thing—often after they’ve tried every wrong thing many times.

Many critics and fans rightfully regard Russo’s books as contemporary classics, but those wishing to delve deeper into the enriching and entertaining Russo catalogue should start with the following:

The “Mohawk” Novels

Mohawk

The Risk Pool

Richard Russo made his literary debut in 1986 with the publication of Mohawk, a novel set in a mostly poor small town in upstate New York. Based largely on his own hometown of Gloverville, With the accuracy of a sociology textbook, Russo depicts Mohawk and its inhabitants and imbues them with the humanity of a good blues song and the tragicomic sensibility of Tennessee Williams.

Life in Mohawk aggrandizes with his second book, The Risk Pool. Russo has called his sophomore novel his “most visceral work,” and after reading it, it is easy to agree. The Risk Pool manages to be beautiful, painful, and joyful all at once. Its protagonist, Ned Hall, is growing up in a town that is falling down, while his parents become more hostile to each other every day. Enough love manages to shine through the cracks to give readers, and the residents of Mohawk, a little more hope to face the struggle.

The Story Collection

The Whore’s Child

Russo gained such attention and adulation as a novelist that his short story collection, The Whore’s Child, published in 2002, slipped out of sight without the fanfare it deserved. Throughout the seven stories, he situates himself as a student of Flannery O’Connor. He shows the absurdity and severity of everyday life, whether the protagonist is an elderly nun (like in the title story) or a cynical Hollywood producer who rediscovers passion, and offers grace and redemption to the characters—and thereby the readers—when everyone expects it the least.

Russo is a strong stylist and a master observer, but what draws readers to his work, over and over again, is his Texas-sized heart. The intensely punchy portrayals of life in flux that make up The Whore’s Child map that heart in all its immensity.

The Funniest Novel You’ll Ever Read

Straight Man

Straight Man, published in 1997, is about the chair of an English department at a small college in Pennsylvania who has come to feel that “life is but a joke,” to quote Bob Dylan. Straight Man presents his cheerfully nihilistic philosophy.

Russo’s fourth book also shows off his skills as a humorist. The infighting, personality clashes, and insect politics of the academic world is so accurately funny it hurts. Scenes that involve the protagonist taking a goose hostage or soiling himself while hiding in a heating duct, like John McClane in Die Hard, will be permanently tattooed on the reader’s memory.

Beneath all of the laughs is a heartbreaking look at the damage an unfeeling father can leave upon his son, and an infuriating indictment of State budgets that make education a low priority. Russo at his funniest is also Russo at his saddest.