Richard Russo’s 1993 novel, Nobody’s Fool, propelled him to the forefront of American letters. Adapted almost instantly by Robert Benton into a celebrated film starring Paul Newman as the inimitable Donald “Sully” Sullivan, an aging ne’er do-well whose stubbornness and defiance are exceeded only by his charm and understated decency, the novel itself drew legions of readers to Russo’s work, placing him in the rare ranks of writers who have earned both critical and popular acclaim. With Everybody’s Fool, Russo returns to North Bath, New York, a small town in slow but sure decline, to catch up with the whole crew ten years later: Sully’s mentally challenged sidekick, Rub Squeers, serial philanderer Carl Roebuck, and the rest of the regulars at the Iron Horse Saloon.
Bath, like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, serves as Russo’s microcosm of American experience: almost all of his novels are set in or intimately connected to a small, dying, blue-collar town in upstate New York or New England. The names change—Mohawk, Bath, Empire Falls, Thomaston—but the dynamics are consistent, as Russo chronicles the travails of flawed but endearing characters stranded in fading backwaters and trying to make the best of things in a world that has passed them by. In Russo’s pantheon of hard-luck Yankee towns, Bath is an especially downtrodden incarnation, an indignity intensified by its proximity to the more prosperous Schuyler Springs. “Schuyler had long possessed everything to which Bath aspired—a vibrant local economy, an educated citizenry, visionary leadership, throngs of seasonal downstate visitors, an NPR affiliate radio station,” Russo writes, with typically droll wit. “All Bath could boast was its rundown roadhouse tavern, the Iron Horse, Hattie’s Lunch, a donut shop, and new Applebees out by the freeway exit. What all this amounted to, everyone agreed, was a complete economic and cultural rout.”
In Everybody’s Fool, the town has yet to recover from the economic disaster of the ill-fated fun-park scheme that led banker Clive Peoples to skip town ten years earlier. Sully’s own luck has changed somewhat—he’s no longer broke, and he has inherited the home of Miss Beryl, his former landlady. He rents one floor of the house to his old nemesis, Carl Roebuck, whose fortunes have turned thanks to both bad business practices and prostate surgery, which appears to have put at least a temporary end to his tomcatting ways. But Sully’s health is failing him, and he spends less time drinking beer at the Iron Horse with Rub and more at Hattie’s counter with Ruth, his former paramour, whose ex-con son-in-law returns to Bath in time to serve as the novel’s primary villain.
The titular fool in Everybody’s Fool, is Douglas Raymer, a bit player in the first novel, who has risen from hapless beat cop to Chief of Police, and who finds himself saddled with an improbable series of catastrophes. Like the town of Bath itself, Doug Raymer can’t seem to catch a break. As the novel opens, he’s recovering from the loss of his wife, Becka, who fell down a flight of stairs to her death with her bags packed to leave her husband for an unknown lover. Raymer’s one clue to the identity of his wife’s new companion is a mysterious garage-door opener. He decides, naturally, to try the remote on every garage door in town. “After all, Bath was a small place and he could cover it neighborhood by neighborhood in his spare time. Wouldn’t that just be good, methodical police work, eliminating the innocent from your inquiries?”
There’s no small hint of tragedy in Raymer’s quixotic investigation—a mood that suits the inherent darkness which comes along with police work in places where prospects are meager. Domestic violence plays an ugly role in the lives of the citizens of Bath, and Russo does not hold back on its grisly particulars. Bath is a hard place, populated by hard people, but Raymer’s primary dilemma is existential: is he up to the task, he wonders, of keeping the peace? “It was a shame, indeed a crying shame, though probably not a crime, to be unequal to the most important tasks you’re given,” Russo writes. “That was true of just about everyone Raymer knew, including himself. All his life, it seemed to him, he’d come up short, but his shortcomings were not, he hoped, criminal.”
Given the profundity of Raymer’s crisis and the misfortune that abounds in Bath in the course of a short two days, is it impertinent to report that Everybody’s Fool is frequently, uproariously, laugh-out-loud funny? Few writers can match Richard Russo’s knack for comic sarcasm and wisecracking dialogue, particularly through the voice of Sully. Nor can many top Russo’s gift for cascading absurd calamity on his characters alongside naked mirth. In Everybody’s Fool, we see an urban-renewal project stymied by a mysterious yellow ooze emerging from the basement floor alongside something called “the Great Bath Stench,” a police chief who faints into the open grave at a local judge’s funeral, an escaped cobra, and a chapter titled “Rub’s Penis.” To say that hilarity ensues alongside the grimmer elements of life in Bath is a gross understatement, and a tribute to Russo’s prodigious gifts as a storyteller.
The film version of Nobody’s Fool is among the best and most faithful literary adaptations in recent memory. It’s a pity we won’t have the privilege of seeing Paul Newman and Philip Seymour Hoffman reprise their roles as Sully and Raymer, but it’s a pleasure to imagine them inhabiting these characters in new adventures, and to spend time again in Richard Russo’s Bath, where, despite everything, cautious optimism overcomes despair. “In the end, I think things are going to work out,” says Douglas Raymer. “He had no idea, of course, whether any of these things were true, in whole or in part,” Russo adds. “Still, what possible good could come of believing otherwise?”
Ed Tarkington holds a B.A. from Furman University, an M.A. from the University of Virginia, and a Ph.D. from the creative-writing program at Florida State University. His debut novel, Only Love Can Break Your Heart, was published by Algonquin Books in January 2016. He lives in Nashville.