Nobody’s Fool -Richard Russo


Nobody’s Fool is a warm, rambling account of life in Bath, a small community in upper New York State that history has passed by.  It is dwarfed by its much more successful, though also quite tiny neighbour, Schuyler Springs.  Bath consistently fails to win at sport or business.  It is on the way down, though some locals have ambitions to build a theme park on the swampy land bordering the highway, next to the graveyard.  Here coffins of casualties of the Vietnam war float down the slope in the boggy ground, eventually finding themselves located under the wrong headstones!

Bath is a place where the generations carry the sins of their forebears in their genes, and no one forgets.  The protagonist of Nobody’s Fool, Sully, a local workman, is near to the bottom of the pile, but doesn’t seem to care.  He is sixty and divorced.  His knee is swollen with arthritis, and the pain is intense. He is in the middle of a long term affair with another man’s wife; their relationship is off and on.  Sully is claiming sickness relief, and has been following mandated college courses to retrain: his philosophy teacher is busy disproving the existence of everything.

Unimpressed by the professional abilities of his one legged lawyer and drinking buddy, Wirf, and by the intransigence of the welfare system, Sully decides that compensation will never arrive and begins to work again, playing truant from college and indulging his anarchic and compulsive personality.  He taunts workmates and bosses, teases waitresses and secretaries, argues and steals.

Sully is a work of art, a hopeless father.  He is the son of a drunken wife beater, and unprepared for family life.  He has completely ignored his own son, leaving his rather neurotic wife not long after marrying her.  He is on good terms with her new husband, a much more conventional character. Now he lives in the flat above Miss Beryl, his former 8th grade teacher.  Her husband is dead, and she suspects her son, the local bank manager, is trying to farm her off to an old people’s home.

Sully’s son arrives back in town for Thanksgiving, along with his wife and three children. Their marriage is on the rocks and he has been refused tenure by the English Department at his university.  Sully is reluctantly drawn into this family conflict.

Sully has charm and wit.  He has a sharp tongue, and the combative dialogue this gives rise to provides some of the best passages of the novel. I could hear the voice of Frank Sobotka, the dockers’ union leader in HBO’s The Wire.  There is that same sharp intelligence and cynicism: the aggression of the essentially powerless manual worker, pugnacious, unwilling to be used and exploited.

Russo has created a small group of characters whose lives are interlinked by location, by family ties and by the mistakes of their past.  Each is brought to life with compassion and humour, in situations which we can all recognise: personal rivalries and animosity, jealousy and greed, love and hypocrisy.  As a picture of American small town life this book is perfect.  It will make you laugh out loud. Sully has a fire in his heart that you will warm to, and whilst the downtrodden characters will draw your sympathy, the more conventional display hypocrisy, neurosis, coldness and greed.  It could be a parable from the New Testament.

Nobody’s Fool is a rerelease of a novel first published in 1993.  Apparently Russo has just published a sequel based on the same small town – it’s called Everybody’s Fool, and is due out in paperback in the UK later this year (2017).  I can’t wait to read it.


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