Monday, April 19, 1999

Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo

I want to talk to you this morning about a contemporary male author, Richard Russo and his novel Nobody’s Fool. Earlier this year I reviewed two novels by Russo, Straight Man and The Risk Pool. In that review I suggested that while Russo is a very good (and very funny) writer, and while he seems to understand at some fundamental level a lacking in most men—a lack that shows up especially in relationships and parenting—he makes the mistake of adopting a kind of essentialism. While men are more or less emotionally blind and inattentive to others, Russo seemed to say that this is simply a part of their nature, just as it is a part of the nature of women to genuinely attend to others and to be in tune with their emotional selves (as well as the emotional selves of others). The problem with that sort of essentialism is that it simply lets men off the hook; if they cannot help their lack of outward attention, then how can we expect more of them.

I still believe that Russo embraces a kind of essentialism, that he has an overly romantic and sentimental attitude towards women, but in reading Nobody’s Fool I became more and more convinced that Russo is actually trying to expose some of the very beliefs that I criticized him for holding. He certainly knows that men, even his favorite men characters, are lacking in what I often call emotional intelligence—that they not only substitute anger for an entire range of emotions that either they don’t feel or can’t express, but also that they seem to lack the ability to analyze their own emotional responses or emotional atrophy. They look to the women in their lives not only to explain their feelings but also to somehow tell them what they are feeling.

In this book, the hero, Sullivan, or Sully for short, is an incredibly funny and heartwarming character. He is the classical “not measuring up to ability and potential” male character that the reader loves to smile at. And yet the very best characters in the novel, all women, seem genuinely to love him. And unlike most of the female characters in Russo’s other books, there are at least two women in this novel who are more than cardboard cut-outs who stand for the good. Miss. Beryl, a retired schoolteacher in her seventies who has taught almost everyone in the small upstate New York town, is Sully’s benevolent landlady. She loves him (and puts up with him) in spite of the fact that he continually drops cigarette ash on her rugs and furniture, tracks mud and dirt without ever seeming to notice what he is doing, and threatens with his carelessly mislaid cigarettes to burn down her entire house (as he has already done to the house containing his former apartment). Though everyone knows her as Miss Beryl, she is, in fact, a widow who talks everyday and often both to her departed husband and to a male African mask on her wall. This convenient device of the aging retired teacher talking to herself allows Russo to comment not only on the departed highschool coach husband, but also the ruthless and greedy capitalist son and on the unreliable nature of men in general. And while Miss Beryl is a little too good to be true, a little too selfless, nevertheless she allows Russo a mouthpiece that shows clearly that he knows a lot more about men and their shortcomings than I had earlier given him credit for. I had thought earlier that he inadvertently exposes his own sexism and sentimentalism (his essentialist leanings) as he creates his male characters and their relationships. Miss Beryl’s shrewd observations convince me that Russo is quite well aware of the faults his male characters make manifest.

Sully also has a lover, Ruth or Ruthie, married to a lazy jerk; despite her infidelity, Ruth is wise and good. Ruth is even less believable and less developed as a character than Miss Beryl, but she does allow the reader to see that Russo is intentionally exposing a great deal about the shortcomings and blindness of men. Interestingly, Ruth finally realizes that she must turn away from Sully, that he is not enough and that he is frightened by the very thought of being somehow a truly reliable friend. Still, the relationship that Russo describes between these two does a lot to convince me that he is much more aware of just what he is doing than I had thought. Even if his characters don’t learn very much from the good women around them, it seems clear to me that Russo has. Indeed, though I may be reading more into this novel than is there, it now seems to me that Sully is supposed to be exposing the error of the very sort of essentialism that I had earlier thought Russo, himself, to be guilty of.

Having said this much that is good about the novel, let me add a few comments that may be critical, but may also, in fact, simply be more evidence of how skillful Russo is in bringing out of concealment the blindness of many men. Although Miss Beryl and Ruth occupy key side-roles in this novel, it is obvious that the real love-affairs are between the men. Sully loves to hate and plot against his greedy, entrepreneurial boss Carl, and to tease and emotionally abuse his rather dim sidekick and work-mate, Rub. The portrait of men showing their deep-seated love and fascination for each other via rather brutal teasing and pranksterism is, I think, well articulated. Again, for a period of time, I thought this to be unintentional on Russo’s part—thought that he was not really aware that the women in the story are sidelights, there to represent morality and caring, but occupying no really significant role in the lives of the star characters, while it is the men who, even with their fighting and backbiting, are the real friends and lovers. There is no doubt that it is the male relationships that are featured, but I am now quite certain that Russo wants the reader to see this—wants to show the reader that despite marriages and children, good and bad sexual relating, the essential and binding relationships for the men are with each other, and that he sees this as both a description of the real world and as a kind of comedic tragedy.

Let me quote just one passage that seems to indicate pretty clearly that Russo is quite aware of the commentary he is providing about men and their relationships. At one point the wealthy womanizer and boss, Carl, is criticizing Sully for his relentless teasing of poor Rub.
“I don’t believe I’m hearing this from you,” Sully said. “When have you ever done anything but insult him?

“There’s a difference, Sully,
Carl said without the slightest hint of hypocrisy.

“What difference is that Carl?” Sully said, flicking the remains of his cigarette. “Tell me why your ragging is okay and mine isn’t, because I want to hear this.”

“Because he’s not in love with me,” Carl said.

“Get the fuck away,” Sully said, genuinely furious now, sliding off the tailgate. “He’s no more queer than you.”

“I know it,” Carl said. “But he’d blow you on the four corners at high noon if you asked him to, and you know that, Sully.”

In fact, Sully did know it, or knew the power of Rub’s devotion....
At any rate, I recommend Russo to you as an author, and this book in particular. While it may be a rather sad commentary on how men show their love for one another, and even on the ineffectual manner in which many men fight the power-structure simply by a rebellious dropping out, I think it also provides an oblique critique of the moneyed patriarchy. I intend to read more of him, and I would not be surprised if I continue to modify my earlier rather casual dismissal of his social and political acumen.

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