Nobody’s Fool.

Admin stuff for today: Chat 1 pm EST, and I’ll be on ESPN 710 in Los Angeles at 1:40 pm PST.

Sully had known Rub too long to believe this particular coincidence. He could tell by the way the young man was carrying his large head, like a medicine ball precariously balanced on his thick shoulders, that he was coming to see Sully and that he wanted to borrow money. In fact, Sully could tell just by looking at him how much Rub wanted (twenty dollars), how much he’d settle for (ten), and how long it would take for them to arrive at this figure (thirty minutes).

Sully is the ne’er-do-well protagonist of Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool, written before his Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls and something of a tune-up work, a funny and engaging novel where the reader can see the author working on his craft, particularly his prose.

Sully, nĂ© Donald Sullivan, is a sixty-year-old man living in a dying town in upstate New York, a ne’er-do-well in a community short of do-wells of any ilk, although his own brand of doing-not-well is as unique as a fingerprint. He’s surrounded by a cast of believably-crazy locals, from the dimwitted Rub of the above quote to his tightly-wound ex-wife Vera to his landlady Miss Beryl (who talks to her late husband’s picture as well as to the African mask on her wall) and her hyper-ambitious son Clive Jr. Yet Sully is most affected by one character who died before the book even began – his alcoholic, abusive father.

Russo unfolds a tableau more than he tells a straight story, although there is ultimately a central narrative thread revolving around Sully’s relationship with his father and reconnection with his estranged son, Peter, whose own marriage and career are falling apart through bad choices in a higher-rent variation of Sully’s life. The story is richer by far for the additional characters and subplots – although “subplot” sounds so perfunctory for the side stories Russo weaves so well into and around the main narrative – built around well-rounded characters living believable lives and facing difficult choices.

Many of those choices revolve around getting older, whether it’s the infirmities and occasional indignities of aging (faced by, among others, Sully and his wounded knee, and Miss Beryl and her slender threads of independence), or anticipating and then dealing with the death of a parent. Yet despite so many heavy storylines – among others, there’s a man who hunts down and nearly kills his estranged wife – Russo manages to infuse the book with humor, particularly in the dialogue. Sully is the perfect smartass, a lifelong class clown who never stops running his mouth, often to his own detriment – not that that stops him from running it.

Empire Falls is a more complete novel, with a better-rounded storyline and a more empathetic main character, but it doesn’t have the same degree of wit or slapstick as Nobody’s Fool; I preferred the former but would recommend the latter as well. And I credit Russo for acknowledging that life revolves around food by putting that most American of culinary institutions, the greasy spoon, at the center of both novels.

Next up: William Kennedy’s Legs, part one of the “Albany” trilogy that eventually earned him a Pulitzer Prize of his own.


  1. The book is really excellent, but I think that in this case, the movie is actually superior. Paul Newman so inhabits Sully that it’s not even possible to imagine anyone else in that role. It’s not just him – there are other characters who translate perfectly, even if there were significant changes/cuts.

  2. I agree with everything currently on this page — with Keith that Nobody’s Fool was very good but that Empire Falls was even better, and with Robert that the movie version probably has the movie beat in this one. That’s almost exclusively a credit to Paul Newman (also appearing in the weird-ass HBO movie version of Empire Falls), though, I think.

  3. …that the movie version probably has the BOOK beat on this one. Yeesh.

  4. As is often the case in his career save Die Hard, Bruce Willis is also excellent in a supporting role as is Melanie Griffith. Last role for Jessica Tandy and an early one for Philip Seymour Hoffman.

  5. Empire Falls is the far superior book but Nobody’s Fool is a great read. I’m a big fan of Russo’s The Risk Pool as well.

  6. Russo is a favorite of mine, and I agree with Will…Risk Pool is great, maybe my favorite of all of his work.

  7. Just in response to your chat comment about the SCOTUS quote…it was Potter Stewart. In case you were curious here is the quote in context, which in my opinion makes it sound a little more reasonable (although still a scary reality considering the importance of the decisions made and the frequency that this seems to be applied throughout the history of the court)…
    “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” -Jacobellis v Ohio 378 US 184 (1964)

  8. Sad Giants Fan (sf): What do you see as Pablo Sandovals ceiling?

    Keith Law: About 300 pounds.

    Get out the snare!

  9. Keith, I was wondering which translation of The Master and Margarita you’d recommend. Thanks.

  10. Francis Borchardt

    Aaron, I’m actually also interested in Keith’s opinion on this too. I’m reading it right now and am using the Michael Glenny translation, which I find both accessible and hilarious. However, my brother read the book earlier this year using a translation prepared by Pevear and Volokhonsky, and it seems that in that one some of the word play is lost. I don’t know which is more idiomatically correct and which more literally correct, but from the brief comparisons I have done the Glenny translation seems to be more entertaining. I believe there are, of course, a number of other translations as well, of which I know next to nothing.

  11. Wasn’t Paul Newman nominated for an Oscar for this film?

    As an unabashed Russo fan (he based Empire Falls, in part, on the town where I went to college and he taught creative writing), I was a huge fan of this book, and prefered this ending to the ending in Empire Falls. It feels less melodramatic, more real.

    But I agree with Keith that Nobody’s Fool, in a lot of ways was a warmup to Empire Falls. As though he figured out that Sully was most effective as a supporting character (as Max Roby), where his insight and wit would be even more devastating.

  12. For The Master and Margarita translation question, I can recommend the version by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor. I’m by no means a scholar in the area, but before reading the book I did a bit of online research and found some people that recommended their translation, and I thoroughly enjoyed it (although I haven’t read any other translations for comparison).


  1. […] already one of my favorite novelists after I’d read just two of his books, Empire Falls and Nobody’s Fool*, but The Risk Pool cemented my affinity for his writing. I’m not sure if there’s a […]

  2. […] can also see my previous reviews of three other Russo novels – Empire Falls, Nobody’s Fool, and The Risk Pool – all of which were […]