When Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool came out 23 years ago, I think I did want to read it, but 1993 is a long way in the past. I’m unsure what I was reading back then, though probably a lot of fantasy. Then in 1994 a movie was released, based on the novel, starring the legendary Paul Newman. Unfortunately I’ve never seen the film. I would offer excuses, if I could manifest them, but fear everyone would see through my lies.
However, I did read Russo’s 1997 Straight Man, which I found brilliantly hilarious and thought that would be the beginning of a long relationship with the author. And while working at Borders, I grabbed the ARC copy of Empire Falls, the 2001 novel by the author (this is the one of many things I miss about not being in the retail book business anymore, for one of the best perks was free books). I, of course, never read it. But I held onto it, and I think I still have that ARC somewhere in my book collection that is shoved in boxes in the garage.
So let’s move up to 2016. I discovered that Russo was releasing a new book in May, and it turned out to be a sequel to Nobody’s Fool (called Everybody’s Fool). So, despite having many other books to read, I got a used edition at Iliad’s in North Hollywood and finally, twenty-three years after it was published, read the book.
Donald "Sully" Sullivan is a worn yet spry hustler living in the peaceful, snowy northern New York state village of North Bath. He free-lances in the construction business, usually with his dim-witted friend Rub by his side. He is often at odds with Carl Roebuck, a local contractor, suing him at every opportunity for unpaid wages and disability. Sully's one-legged lawyer Wirf is inept, and his lawsuits are repeatedly dismissed. As a way to irritate him, Sully flirts with Carl's wife Toby (Griffith) openly at every opportunity (which she enjoys). He is a regular at the Iron Horse Saloon, where he often has drinks and plays cards with Wirf, Carl, Rub, and the town sheriff. Sully is a tenant in the home of the elderly Miss Beryl, whose banker son Clive strongly urges her to kick him out and sell the house. Family complications of his own develop for Sully with a visit from Peter, his estranged son who is a jobless professor at odds with his wife. While he and Sully reconstruct their relationship, Sully begins a new one with young grandson Will. Peter’s sudden everyday presence does not sit well with Rub, but Sully tells him that although Peter is his son, Rub is still his best friend. Meanwhile, Clive is on the verge of a lucrative deal to build an amusement park in North Bath. However the deal seems too good to be true.
While the themes of quirky small town America life, filled with eccentric characters of all stripes, are well-worn tropes in fiction, Russo delivers a fairly original character of Nobody’s Fool Sully. He’s a well-developed, almost real-life person who clearly has succeed in failing at everything he does, but does not seem to be really bothered by it. He has a smart mouth, which tends to get him trouble a lot, but overall, his appealing nature makes the reader fall in love with him, instead of wondering why anyone would be friends with him, especially Rub.
The book has many storylines that eventually dovetail nicely, but there were many of them that went on too long and seemed to be filler (I was amused at the running joke with the snow blower, however). But what made the book work are the carefully realized characters having real, very believable conversations. It’s a treat, sometimes, when an author can travel over well-worn premise and still deliver something worth reading.