Everybody’s Fool.

I loved Richard Russo’s peak novels, including Empire Falls, Straight Man, and Nobody’s Fool, all of which combined great characterization (of men, at least), well-developed settings, and a mix of humor both lowbrow and high to present slices of life in declining Northeastern mill towns. The last one I mentioned followed the exploits of Donald “Sully” Sullivan, a charming ne’er-do-well who twists the folk hero archetype around and makes us cheer for him as he puts one over on his various nemeses in their small community. Sully returns in a sequel, Everybody’s Fool, set ten years after the original story, and while it’s a pleasant read on its own, it can’t stand up to the shadow of its predecessor.

This time around, Russo gives us two protagonists, Sully and the cop he was jailed for punching in the first book, Doug Raymer, who is now the chief of police, and is Sully’s antiparticle. Where Sully is confident to the point of rashness, Raymer is constantly worried that he’s doing the wrong thing, whether in his job or in his now ended marriage to a woman who died by falling down the steps as she was preparing to leave him for an unknown lover. Raymer and his assistant, Charice, are clearly going to end up an item by the end of the book, although he’s hesitating both because of their work relationship and because they’re different races. Meanwhile, Sully has ended his affair with his paramour Ruth, but her daughter Janie is now a mother herself, and Janie’s ex-boyfriend is an abusive asshole who keeps showing up despite an order of protection. Carl and Rub are still around from the first book, Wirf and Miss Beryl aren’t. Peter, Sully’s son, just shows up in passing; the missing cobra at the heart of the funniest subplot gets more page time.

Everybody’s Fool is similar to the first book, but it’s not the same because it can’t be, even though Russo seems deadset on recreating the past. By setting this book ten years in the future and continuing the stroke of good luck that hit Sully at the end of the first book, Russo has flipped his world upside down and has to give Sully a new stroke of bad luck – a bad diagnosis on his heart from a VA doctor – to try to rebalance the scales, but it doesn’t work. Sully was charming in the first book because he used his charisma and wiles to get by; now that he’s living on Easy Street, he comes off as more of a jerk. His best friend, Rub, is a pathetic character, and Sully’s good natured ribbing now appears mean. Carl probably deserves what Sully gives him, but there are moments where Carl is at least trying to reach across the divide for a moment of shared humanity, and Sully can’t be bothered. I loved Sully in the first book, but here, I found him exasperating.

Raymer, meanwhile, ends up with more time at center stage, and the results are mixed, as he’s certainly not as compelling a lead as Sully was. Russo tries to infuse some depth to him by giving Raymer a sort of devil on his shoulder (after he’s hit by a lightning strike) who pushes him to be bold and decisive where Raymer would ordinarily be reticent. In some scenes, such as the resolution to the cobra story, it works beautifully, the sort of serendipitous denouement at which Russo excels; in others, it comes across like Russo is trying to make Raymer sound like a crazy person, and it instead feels like a bad comic device.

I can understand an author wanting to revisit some of his favorite creations, both characters and places, but for a second novel in the same setting to work, it has to tell us something new, and I don’t think Everybody’s Fool accomplishes that in the least. Russo creates new problems for old friends and solves them in mostly expected ways. The one surprise of the book is a new character, Jerome, Charice’s brother, a side character whose depth is slowly revealed over the course of the book, and who probably should have been its main character after all – although if Russo were anxious about writing a book with an African-American protagonist, I could certainly understand that. Jerome and Charice were just what this fictional town needed: a dose of something completely different, an injection of otherness into a sea of white blue-collar folks that could have made Everybody’s Fool feel like a fresh look at an old milieu. Instead, we get a pleasant read that breaks no new ground. It’s like a Pixar sequel, where we’re glad to see the characters we loved, but realize at the end that we didn’t learn anything new about them.

Next up: I mentioned yesterday that I’m reading Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, and the next review will cover Allen Drury’s Pulitzer winner Advise and Consent.

Comments

  1. Writing about Harvey Haddix’s 12 perfect inniings in “Smart Baseball” you said that “Joe Adcock doubled to deep right center” to end the game. In fact, Adcock hit the ball into the stands for what would have been a 3-run home run only to be called out when he passed Hank Aaron on the base path.
    If you check the box score for that game, Haddix is credited with pitching 12.2 innings. As you wrote, the lead-off hitter reached base on an error, followed by a bunt and an intentional walk. Thus, Adcock came to the plate with one out. The only way for Adcock to end the game and for Haddix to pitch 12.2 innings is for Adcock to make the second out of the inning in his at bat. And that is what Adcock did when he ran past Aaron on the bases.
    I am enjoying your book but, unfortunately, errors like this make the reader wonder about the accuracy of other parts of the book.

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