By November 9, 2011 7 Comments Read More →

In Praise of Richard Russo

While casting about for topics for Book Group Buzz today, it occurred to me that I’ve never written here about the author who is perhaps my favorite contemporary American writer, Richard Russo.

Now seven novels and one book of stories into his career, Russo has yet to produce a book that isn’t worthy of book group selection, and his best work is simply stellar. Almost all of his writing is semi-autobiographical, but while many of his novels mine common themes, each is ultimately something all its own.

Russo’s most frequent theme is the relationship between children and their parents and the echoes that early family interactions continue to have even in our adult lives. Father-son relationships are key to The Risk Pool and Nobody’s Fool, with the son getting a little older in each installment. Relationships with two adult parents are central to Straight Man and Russo’s most recent novel That Old Cape Magic.

His settings are usually the small cities of the American northeast, where he captures the ambience perfectly–a sort of sprung sense of community, where a certain amount of neighborliness lingers on despite the challenges that people have getting along with each other. The Risk Pool, Nobody’s Fool, and Empire Falls all contain masterly depictions of such towns.

Another frequent Russo touchpoint is academia, where he skewers snobbery and dysfunctional faculty relationships with glee. Straight Man, set in the English department of a small Pennsylvania college, is Russo’s most laugh-out-loud funny book. where ducks and an unhappy prostate gland make for surprising comic glee. That Old Cape Magic captures the crotchety unhappiness of academics trapped at minor universities to curmudgeonly perfection.

The surest way to book club success is to pick books with believable characters, and in this regard, Russo never disappoints. His characters are beautifully imperfect, equal parts funny, miserable, persistent, and charming, or in a word, real.

In addition to the titles that I’ve mentioned, you also won’t go wrong with Bridge of Sighs or MohawkNobody’s Fool and Straight Man top my personal list of Russo favorites, but the internal competition is stiff here: Empire Falls, for instance, won a Pulitzer Prize.

For a sample, two films of Russo works capture his tone pretty well. Nobody’s Fool features Paul Newman, Bruce Willis, Jessica Tandy, and Melanie Griffith. Empire Falls isn’t quite as good as the book, but the HBO miniseries, adapted by Russo himself and featuring Ed Harris, Helen Hunt, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, is still worth your viewing time.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

7 Comments on "In Praise of Richard Russo"

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  1. newrambler@gmail.com' laura says:

    I’ve never discussed a Russo book, but they are among my very favorites, too. And Straight Man is, I’m pretty sure, the funniest book I’ve ever read — all three times I’ve revisited it.

  2. misha says:

    I also love Russo. But I will say that for as funny as Straight Man is it is a book that also has a truly sad heart. When my book group discussed it we really delved past the funny veneer that the main character wears to mask his hurt and disappointment in life.

  3. Larry@OurClientsMatter.com' Larry says:

    I think that Nobody’s Fool ranks with the Human Stain and, yes, Straight Man was easily one of the most LOL books I ever read. Good insights on Misha’s comments too.

  4. jes120652@yahoo.com' Jim S says:

    I loved Straight Man and you are right, it’s laugh-out-loud funny. Best book on academia since Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis.

  5. frgarrett@gmail.com' Floyd says:

    Straight Man was my entry into Russo and then I’ve read them all and kept up with everything he has written. . .he is greatly under-appreciated. Straight Man was an absolute riot–but, I agree with Misha. . .the underpinnings of the great novel was that sense of “disappointment in life” as she aptly puts it.

    Thanks, Neil, for a nice tribute for, by the way, a very humble author when I had the privilege of meeting him right after Empire Falls won the Pulitzer. Classy all the way. And my favorite smart ass!

  6. Kingstonbowen@gmail.com' Kingston says:

    Russo is awesome. Straight Man and Bridge of Sighs are my favorites. I look forward to reading Nobody’s Fool. I hope he has a new book soon!

  7. blondieshh@live.com' Sandra says:

    He is also among my favorite contemporary writers, and Nobody’s Fool and Straight Man are my favorites, too. He’s one of the authors I keep an eye out for in the “New Books” section. I’ll even spring for the hardcover!

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