By Richard Russo
477 pages, $27.95
By Karen Brady
Pull up a stool! Richard Russo is back in small-town North Bath, the fictional upstate New York home of such stool-sitting spots as Hattie’s lunch counter, Gert’s Tavern – and the White Horse Inn, known to one and all as “the Horse.”
Russo was last here for his wry 1993 novel “Nobody’s Fool,” and now brings us its sequel, the equally droll, life-defeating-and-affirming “Everybody’s Fool.”
We know, from the start, what we’re in for as Russo dedicates “Everybody’s Fool” to his friend (and one might say “partner in crime”) Howard Frank Mosher, an author who, like Russo, deals in regional characters, and situations, that are, to say the least, idiosyncratic.
Take the North Bath chief of police, Douglas Raymer, who spends much of “Everybody’s Fool” driving around with a garage remote – hoping to find a garage it will open, thereby learning the identity of his late wife Becka’s lover.
Outlandish, you say? Not in North Bath, where peculiarity and dysfunction seem to go hand in hand – yet where, deep within its collective cast of characters, lies a complex body of thought. There is real angst and introspection here – not to mention a large dose of male insecurity that the men of North Bath tend to mask with wisecracks and high jinks.
Nearly all of them grew up under the tutelage of the late middle school teacher “Miss Beryl” who expected great things of her “boys,” in particular Donald “Sully” Sullivan, the clever if unscrupulous protagonist of “Nobody’s Fool” who, now 70 years old, has been given “a year, maybe two” to live:
“He’d made it halfway up the drive when Miss Beryl’s long-ago question popped into his head, unbidden as always. Does it ever trouble you that you haven’t done more with the life God gave you? Even now he couldn’t say for sure. Was it supposed to? Had he been wrong to take such pleasure in always doing things the (easy) way? And to banish self-doubt and regret before they could take root? Had it been selfish of him to make sure that his destination at the end of the day was a barstool among men who, like himself, had chosen to be faithful to what they took to be their own natures, when instead they might have been faithful to their families or to convention or even to their own early promise?
“Not often, he’d told Miss Beryl. Now and then.”
Sully shares the spotlight with the middle-aged Raymer here – a man who, despite being police chief, considers himself a buffoon in others’ eyes: “All his life, it seemed to him, he’d come up short,” he muses, at one point asking his alter ego, “Can I tell you something? … I’m so tired of being everybody’s fool.”
The time is somewhere near the present and, as Russo turns his kaleidoscope of North Bath characters, a series of events takes place in a matter of hours: A much-loathed judge is interred shortly before the partial collapse of a North Bath building (onto another much-loathed North Bath citizen) – the incident almost immediately topped by the unrelated escape of an illegally owned cobra from the seedy Morrison Arms. This is not to mention the ongoing Great Bath Stench, whose origins seem to lie with a shady developer whose latest scheme is to gentrify little, lost-to-time North Bath.
Mayor Gus Moynihan and, of course, Raymer, must attend to these happenings, Moynihan worrying about the daily Schuyler Springs Democrat – which is always quick to pounce upon anything untoward in small, neighboring North Bath.
“Readers of the North Bath Weekly Journal generally didn’t look to their hometown paper for real news about Bath,” he considers at one point. “No, if you wanted news about Bath, you had to subscribe to the Schuyler Springs Democrat.”
In turn, according to the mayor, the North Bath Weekly Journal existed “to report the more exciting goings-on in Schuyler Springs, where the harness track offered exotic wagering on trotters and pacers, and new restaurants were launched almost weekly, offering striking, unusual cuisines (Eritrean!) that used colorful, mysterious ingredients (nettles! squid ink!) and wine was served in ‘flights’…”
Russo has said that North Bath is based on Gloversville, N.Y., where he grew up – and it isn’t a stretch to imagine that Schuyler Springs is a fictional version of the larger Saratoga Springs, 40 minutes from Gloversville and long famous for its thoroughbred horse racing.
For Western New Yorkers, this gives “Everybody’s Fool” an added familiarity, an upstate sensibility that reminds us that we already “know” the citizens of North Bath, or certainly people like them.
There is the indefatigable Ruth, former mistress to Sully, who runs Hattie’s while her husband, Zack, overruns their home with other peoples’ outcast possessions, their daughter, Janey, and granddaughter, Tina, nothing but a pack of small troubles, and Janey’s estranged spouse, Roy Purdy, nothing but very big trouble.
Ruth, not one to suffer fools gladly, sees deeper meaning everywhere, even in Hattie’s clientele who, after a meal, tell Ruth they are “ ‘Full,’ as if emptiness were the prevailing condition of their lives, from which eating provided a temporary respite.”
Russo deals with the absurd and the poignant here – letting Sully name his dog after his sidekick, “Rub,” a dimwitted but endearing man who tolerates Sully’s endless conversation, never knowing whether it is addressed to him or the dog.
It is a gimmick that wears thin quickly – as does the banter between Raymer, the police chief, and his second-in-command, Charice, a smart and attractive African American woman with a twin brother, Jerome. But both are pivotal to the novel’s plot (such as it is, the plot not being the point here).
Gert’s, a seamy bar near the Morrison Arms, is wonderfully portrayed, a place where “half of the regulars – mostly deadbeat dads, disability scam artists, derelicts and assorted dickheads – fell asleep with their heads on the bar.”
Gert himself is a triumph, “an enormous man in his midseventies with a shaved head and a hairy chest” who, it is said, “dispensed advice, along with rotgut whiskey and cheap beer, to the town’s petty criminals, who liked to run their nitwit schemes past him so Gert could point out their more obvious flaws.”
What we have here, in short, is a sort of Archie Bunker neighborhood crossed with “Twin Peaks” and left to leaven over time, a slice of Americana rendered with such wit and pathos that we can look past its occasional overdone absurdity to its soul.
Places like North Bath won’t stay the same forever. Sully is already watching Will, his son Peter’s child, being steered along another path: “Any youthful enthusiasm he expressed for how his grandfather navigated the world, Peter considered his duty to temper, lest the romance of the tool belt and barstool take root.”
Russo’s first North Bath book, “Nobody’s Fool,” was a huge hit – and the ensuing big-screen movie starred Paul Newman in the role of then-late-middle-aged Sully, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as a young Raymer.
“Empire Falls,” Russo’s 2001 novel, won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and was made into an HBO miniseries. “Everybody’s Fool” has the same zany potential, the book a repository of a town where anything can still happen – and probably will.
Karen Brady is a former Buffalo News columnist.