The Risk Pool.

My column on the 18U Team USA trials went up the other day. You can hear my hit from Mike & Mike in the Morning today and from AllNight last night. Both were recorded on the same phone but I sound quite different in each hit. Go figure.

Richard Russo was 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 contemporary American novelist out there who can match Russo for both creating flawed characters and showing a clear affection for them despite their flaws, written in clear, modern prose with plenty of humor.

*Apropos of nothing, I read Nobody’s Fool right before reading William Kennedy’s Legs, then read this book right after reading Kennedy’s Ironweed, with all four novels set in upstate New York. This wasn’t a plan to read novels in geographical order – it just sort of happened.

The Risk Pool is the story of the relationship between Ned Hall and his parents, the shiftless, irresponsible Sam Hall and the wife, Jenny, he abandoned – mostly – when Ned was born and Jenny’s father died. Ned spends his childhood shuffled from Jenny to Sam and back to Jenny again, through Jenny’s mental collapse (caused in no small way by Sam) and Sam’s movement in and out of jail, sobriety, and the town (Mohawk) where Ned grows up.

Although the story is told by Ned and populated by Russo’s regular crew of local wackos, the star of the show is Sam. The elder Hall comes back from World War II a changed man, living entirely in the present, abandoning his responsibilities toward his strait-laced wife and newborn son without actually skipping town or exiting their lives entirely. Russo could easily have made Sam a villain, or just written about him with derision or obvious distaste, but Russo always embraces his flawed characters, and you can see that he enjoyed crafting Sam and putting him into odd situations to see what he’d do.

Ned finds himself torn physically and emotionally between his two parents, feeling more affection toward his father than he does toward his fragile, smothering mother, while trying not to become too much like either parent. His success or failure in this endeavor isn’t revealed until the final few pages of the book, but that question – how will Ned turn out – has a strong narrative pull in a book that doesn’t offer many unresolved questions to drag you forward. The story is driven by the characters, and because the characters are interesting, that’s just about enough.

The two Russo novels I read both had plenty of humorous moments, but The Risk Pool was definitely the funniest, both in situational comedy but also in Russo’s prose. There’s an extended riff when Ned ends up with the prim wife and timid daughter of one of Mohawk’s wealthiest families where Russo’s prose style emulates Wodehouse’s for a half-dozen pages, mostly as Ned mentally mocks the older woman’s bizarre mannerisms:

She discovered the lights at the same instant the strangling Lincoln gave a violent lurch forward, coughed once, and died.
“Oh dear,” said Mrs. Ward, as if she could imagine no way out of this unforeseen circumstance and suspected that they would now have to purchase a new car.

If The Risk Pool has a flaw, it’s Russo’s excessive use of disposable characters. In his later books, Russo uses slightly fewer side characters and integrates them more fully into the main plot, whereas The Risk Pool has more characters that Russo shunts aside when he’s done with them. I also found the relationship between Sam Hall and his on/off girlfriend Eileen – and Eileen’s son, Drew – a little unclear in the end, particularly where Sam and Eileen had stood before Sam married Jenny and went off to war. Whether this was a deliberate omission on Russo’s part or a minor plot hole he didn’t close isn’t clear (and I can’t say more without spoiling one of the book’s few mysteries).

Next up: Edwin O’Connor’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Edge of Sadness. Also, for those of you who were interested in a “book club” of sorts, how about Don Robertson’s The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread? (Granted, I might have made that subtitle up.) It’s coming up in my queue, and it’s on the short side so it should be accessible to everyone. If I have a handful of takers, I’ll fix a discussion date about two weeks ahead of us.


  1. The Risk Pool is a favorite of mine but this is partly due to Sam’s resemblance to my own father. Glad you liked it.

  2. I’d be interested in an e-book club, though I’m curious how this is going to operate. Also, what subtitle?

    And, to be nitpicky for a moment with your selected passage: “strangling Lincoln” is, to me, odd. I know that “strangle” can be transitive or intransitive, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it used in the present tense intransitive like that. The more common wording, from my experience, would be “the strangled Lincoln”. The first read-through, though, I definitely thought, “strangling what?”

  3. “I’m not sure if there’s a contemporary American novelist out there who can match Russo for both creating flawed characters and showing a clear affection for them despite their flaws, written in clear, modern prose with plenty of humor.”

    I agree with this. However, if you want to see the flip side or the dark side of these characters (think more desperation, more depression, more seething anger ready to explode into violence) then I would strongly suggest reading some Russell Banks, especially the heartbreaking Sweet Hereafter and the engaging and upsetting Affliction.

  4. Keith, I envy you, as you haven’t even gotten to Russo’s funniest (and quite touching) novel: Straight Man. (The duck scenes alone are gold you won’t get anywhere else). If you feel the need to keep the Russo/Kennedy pattern intact, you can read Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game after that (though now that I come to think of it, that analogy doesn’t work, as Russo takes his show to central Pa. in Straight Man)

  5. btw, I’m with Jesse G. on Banks. Russo: Banks = Law: Sheehan.

  6. I just started reading Emma, but if I can find The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread at my favorite used book store in the next couple of days, I’m in on the book club.

  7. I figure we wouldn’t start reading the book for at least a full week, to give folks a chance to pick it up. That way Brian can finish reading Emma first – I wouldn’t dream of interrupting a book in the Klaw 10.

    Chris – I read Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game earlier this year.

  8. I actually read Roscoe before the Albany Trio and enjoyed it immensely. It is fast (I may have read it on one plane ride), exciting, and funny. Kennedy has a style that makes me forget I’m even reading, I just get engrossed in the story and zip through it. I don’t have the literary vocabulary to explain it, but it reminds me of how I felt reading Lonesome Dove. Whatever it is, it’s opposite of Marquez. I liked the one of his I read, Love in the Time of Cholera, but I definitely needed to slow my pages per minute to follow the story.

    My favorite Russo was Nobody’s Fool. I liked Straight Man because I have a personal interest in academia, but I don’t think it was on par with the big guns: Empire Falls, Nobody’s Fool, and Risk Pool.

  9. Banks is great. I’ll take McCarthy for modern American novelists, but KLaw knows all about him. I’ll add to the recommendations of The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction, Continental Drift, which is my favorite Banks, though it seems to have been largely forgotten with the relative commercial success of his later books.

  10. Tom Hanks has signed on to play the lead role in the movie adaption. Kind of cool.

  11. Chris Girtin

    Klaw, sorry if I’m too late to the party, but if you’re going to hold the online discussion/book club, count me in….

  12. What most amazes me about Russo is the way he weaves flashbacks in and out throughout the narrative (at least in the four that I’ve read), sometimes resulting in works that are scarcely one-fourth “present day.” As someone who has dicked around with creative writing I have troubles even conceiving of how to tell a tale in such a convoluted fashion, but as a reader I love the way he does it.


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