by Richard Russo
496 pages, Knopf
Review by Anthony Barker
If you have escaped a meaningless life in a dying town in upstate New York, you might hate Richard Russo's latest novel, “Everybody's Fool”. Still, you'd have to laugh. That's how good a writer Russo is.
In this version of small town America, the characters from Russo's “Nobody's Fool” are ten years older, the men even more feckless, the women still grimly capable, still despairing (some of them in and out of the madhouse at Utica, and no wonder).
Like the Greeks at Ilium everyone is subject to the random torments of the Gods (these days, called 'luck'.) Sully, the unhero of 'Nobody's Fool' (played by Paul Newman in the movie version) has become rich through no virtue of his own, while the venal building contractor, Carl Roebuck (played by Bruce Willis) is now poor.
Otherwise they are the same as they were. Sully still a loiterer in life, hanging around, no use to his family, no longer appealing to his former lover. He's dying, and suffering (fleeting) regrets for the damage he has more-or-less unintentionally done, in his unintentional life.
Roebuck is also unchanged, an incompetent contractor, a chiseler and cheat, but now his ex-wife is gone, after taking all his money. He has remained behind in Bath, a city suffering from an inferiority complex. The mayor, a former academic (by definition, incompetent) has hired him to restore and repurpose an abandoned spa. The building is a relic of a previous era of hubris when Bath, whose springs dried up, tried to copy the success of nearby Schuyler Springs, a sparkling place where tourists 'take the waters', watch harness racing, and do whatever the just must do in heaven.
It is somehow reassuring to find Sully and Roebuck still at it, although, as in real life, the heroes of one story are the subplot of another.
This story belongs to Police Chief Douglas Raymer, a man who ran for office on the humiliating, misprinted slogan, “We're not happy until you're not happy.” He is grieving the death of his wife Becka. In her haste to leave him last year she slipped on a throw rug and tumbled downstairs 'like a slinky'. He found her folded up on the bottom step, neck broken—together with a note urging him to forgive her and to try to 'be happy for us'.
He's possibly the only person in town who doesn't know which 'us' she meant.
He hopes to find out. An electronic garage door opener was found in her car—an opener for somebody else's garage. The problem for adulterers, in Bath as elsewhere, is not so much time and opportunity, as discovery. Small town neighbors are likely to recognize your car, notice that it's parked on the wrong street, and draw the correct conclusion. Solution: borrow your lover's garage door opener and dash inside when nobody's looking.
But can the Chief of Police go around town trying the opener on everybody's garage? Not very dignified, maybe not even legal. And what good would it do? The right garage might not even be in Bath. The Chief's assistant, a typical Russo female, sensible, intelligent, sympathetic and devious, suggests Schuyler Springs. Alternatively, she says, the same opener might work on a dozen garages. Becka's dead, she says. Let her go. Get rid of the opener.
It's a dilemma, and dilemmas were never Chief Raymer's strong point, even before he was so depressed and confused. Did things get worse when he fainted at the funeral of the local Judge, falling into the grave, losing the opener under the judge's casket? Not really.
Did they get better when he persuaded Sully and Carl to dig up the grave to find it? Of course not, things always go from bad to worse in Bath.
There's lots more. There's an ex-con with impulse control issues, and a hand-printed list of people he needs to pay back—including BITCH (ex-wife), MAMA BITCH (former mother-in-law) N*GGER COP (Officer Jerome Bond, or as he likes to introduce himself, 'Bond... Jerome Bond') SULLY himself, and OLD WOMAN (a former teacher, ten years dead, who haunts the men in the story, by asking them to think).
There's Sully's friend 'Rub' – a man barely includible within the definition of human, yet filled with longing and devotion, and his counterpart, Sully's dog (cruelly, also named 'Rub') who may be the world's most disgusting canine.
There's murder and mayhem.
Any reader who has made the hard slog from Bath to Schuyler Springs might spend most of the book as confused as Chief Raymer. Not because you can't go home again—it's more a question of 'Why would you?'
Except ... it's so funny.