I had read Richard Russo’s short stories in The New Yorker, but never any of his novels. He was always, to me, one of those authors my mom was always reading. She loved Bridge of Sighs and recommended it to all her friends, and there’s a large hardcover of Empire Falls somewhere in our house. I had noticed them but never picked one up, but this was the way I also discovered Richard Ford.
Then my best friend’s stepdad, David, recommended Nobody’s Fool to me. He lent me his copy, which has Paul Newman on the cover, from the movie adaptation. I always hate reading the copy of a book that has the actors on the cover, but I didn’t mind it as much here because it was still unassuming and because, hey, who doesn’t like to look at Paul Newman.
When David lent me the book, he gave me a challenge: he said there is a passage in the book that is seemingly about something unimportant but actually describes the entire point of the book. He said that when he lent the book to a friend of his years ago, he gave him the same challenge and the friend came back citing the exact passage David had in mind. So I was nervous about whether I’d be able to find it.
On to the book, now: it’s a pleasure. Russo, of course, is adept at establishing the soul of a little town, and as such, it’s no surprise that the first few pages of Nobody’s Fool, maybe even the first thirty pages, are kind of slow and boring. But let it grow on you and it does so quickly: the protagonist, Sully, specifically. He’s bitter and old and sarcastic and kind of mean, but he’s also lovable, and Russo makes us adore him right away.
The rest of the cast of characters is also vivid and they don’t just end up being stock types, though they do serve typical roles within the town: Rub Squeers is the village idiot, in a sense, bumbling and confused, but he’s also Sully’s best friend; Carl Roebuck is Mr. Perfect, a smart businessman and exacting employer, but a womanizer, who antagonizes Sully but also looks up to him; Cass is the sweet, caring daughter of a sick mother and owner of the diner where Sully seems to eat all of his meals; Beryl Peoples is the old woman in whose voice almost half the chapters are told, who is a warm and friendly landlord to Sully and was also his school teacher when he was a child. (She also happens to hear the voice of an old African mask in her head, along with her dead husband’s voice, and in this way Charlotte Graves, from Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic, simply has to be based on her.)
As I read the book, I kept David’s quiz question at the back of my mind. At any passage that felt weight, I wondered whether it was the one he meant. About halfway through the book, I decided I had found it, though I was worried it came too early. Here’s the passage I marked:
[Wirf, Sully’s lawyer, has just told Sully that due to years of drinking and poor eating, Wirf’s liver is in poor health and he may be dying. Sully says he should start living more healthily, but Wirf essentially says fuck it, at this point it’s too late.]
Sully shook his head, feeling much of the same frustration he’d felt two days ago listening to Cass, who’d explained to him her lack of options with regard to her mother. Here was Wirf telling him the same thing, that he was damned if he did, damned if he didn’t. Maybe Sully’s young philosophy professor at the college had been right. Maybe free will was just something you thought you had. Maybe Sully’s sitting there trying to figure out what he should do next was silly. Maybe there was no way out of this latest fix he’d gotten himself into. Maybe even the trump card he’d been saving, or imagined he was saving, wasn’t in his hand at all. Maybe his father’s house already belonged to the town of Bath or the state of New York. Maybe Carl Roebuck had bought it at auction for back taxes… Maybe even Carl Roebuck didn’t have any choices. Maybe it just wasn’t in him to be thankful for having money and a big house and the prettiest woman in town for his very own. Maybe he was just programmed to wander around with a perpetual hard-on, oozing charm and winning lotteries. Still, Sully felt the theory to be wrong. It made everything slack. He’d never considered life to be as tight as some people (Vera came to mind for one, Mrs. Harold for another) made it out to be, but it wasn’t that loose either.
This sure seemed to me to summarize the book’s themes in one mundane moment—all about the freedom to choose, whether it really exists, and whether we have ourselves to blame for our predicaments or some other force, etc.
But when I finished the book and brought it back to David, showing him my passage, he said the passage he had in mind was a different one, about how Beryl likes Sully better than her own son, Clive Jr., even though she knows she should love Clive more because he’s her son (Sully’s nickname for him is “The Bank” and he’s really dull):
[Beryl has just given Wirf, the lawyer, a check that will pay for the back taxes on Sully’s father’s house, so that Sully can move in there. This was her choice instead of evicting Sully, as her son Clive Jr. asked her to do.]
This, then, was what had come of her poor compromise, her attempt to do right, to separate the conflicting dictates of head and heart, to assuage conscience… For fairness and loyalty, however important to the head, were issues that could seldom be squared in the human heart, at the deepest depths of which lay the mystery of affection, of love, which you either felt or you didn’t, pure as instinct, which seized you, not the other way around, making a mockery of words like “should” and “ought.”
Anyway, I think both of our passages are wonderful and the real takeaway is that probably ten more passages could be found that are examples of Russo’s ability to distill a grand life lesson into a tiny moment between down-on-their-luck people.
After reading the book, I was eager to find the movie, even though I find that almost always the movie does not live up to the book, at least when the book was good. Often, the film adaptation is so bad it can ruin your memory of the wonderful book. But I had a feeling this one might be right on the mark, and it was.
The movie, starring Newman as Sully (he’s perfect; he is the embodiment of the character, straight from the page to the screen), came in 1994 and I think wasn’t a commercial hit but sure has some great acting. And lovers of the book will adore it.
The pacing is especially perfect: the book starts out with a lengthy (admittedly slow) description of the town of Bath. The movie respectfully pays homage to Russo’s style by doing the same, but accomplishes it in just three minutes of opening credits.
Rounding out the cast are Bruce Willis as Roebuck (not the look I imagined when I read the book, but he nails it), Melanie Griffith as Roebuck’s hot wife whom Sully adores (she flashes her breasts in this movie, which took me by surprise), and Pruitt Taylor Vince, whom I know as the disturbed schizophrenic from Identity, playing Rubb and pretty easily making you love him and feel for him.
What’s so nice (and encouraging, too, in the age of movies like Transformers 12) is that a film so old and, to me, one I had never heard of and probably never would have had I not read the book, is clearly so well loved. The comments on the video are all happy and seem uncharacteristic of the typical YouTube community: “Cool, simple film. Small town family realism,” someone commented. Another says, “One of my all-time fav films.” Makes sense, of course—it was nominated for two Oscars (Best Actor for Newman and Best Screenplay). It didn’t win any.