Janet Maslin of the New York Times may have summed it up best when she called Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Empire Falls, “an improbably neighborly and nonchalant version of the great American novel.”
Still shy of his sixtieth birthday, having raised a family and taught for twenty years to boot, Russo has turned out six novels, a short story collection and two screenplays that read as easily as a long sip from a cool draft and a conversation with a friend (or, when suspenseful, like a game of high-stakes basement poker). His style mixes history, humor, and heartbreak in a way that seems effortless and fluid, the narration’s perspective shifting back and forth between characters or time periods to give the reader a bit of information and then steal her away to a sight off-screen. It is a style of storytelling reminiscent of porch stoops and campfires, of long drives and even longer marriages: anecdote building on anecdote, followed by an aside, a revelation, a secret revealed in the safety of accumulated time.
“I come from a long line of bullshitters,” Mr. Russo said in a recent interview with Steve Inskeep on National Public Radio, speaking of his family and particularly of his father. In college, Russo would return home from the University of Arizona where he earned a B.A., M.F.A., and PhD, to Gloversville, New York, where he worked with his father on road crews over summer vacation. In the evenings, the men retired to the local bar to tell tales, and it was there—in a town named after the gloves its residents once manufactured—that the novelist got his start. At the end of each summer, having listened to and become a part of his town’s story, he would question his motivation for leaving the woof and weave of his community. But every fall he would leave, and the leaving likely gave him the distance needed to see the thing of which he was a part.
Russo sets his novels in Gloversvilles—towns where people know each other, know each other’s families for generations backwards and forwards, where there is (or was) an industry that made the town tick. Every town has a café, a bar, a high school, a lover’s lane, and stories—local legends, family sagas, heroes, and villains—so the towns themselves are virtually interchangeable. But Russo is not writing about any place in particular, he is writing about class and race. And from town to town, these issues are always the same. With a New England wit and a Midwestern heart, Russo’s quotidian if elegiac characters fight the good fight—through high school, marriage, and work. And they hold up a mirror to the facts and prejudices of our daily life, ultimately asking where art can shine a light or break a pattern to create social change.
Retired from the faculty of Colby College, Russo and his wife live in coastal Maine. They have two daughters. His most recent novel, Bridge of Sighs, was published in 2007.
Excerpt from Bridge of Sighs (2007)
I will have to make a concerted effort not to brood about the fact that Buddy’s walking around Thomaston in my father’s old coat. After all, things like this happen all the time in small towns. When I was growing up it wasn’t difficult to trace the provenance of a particular item of clothing. A blue blazer, for instance, might be purchased for a junior high or high school boy by his Borough parents; by the following summer he would have outgrown it, and the blazer would then be donated to their church’s clothing drive, after which it would reappear on the back of some East End kid, whose parents would take it the following year to Goodwill, where a West End mother would purchase it for her son. Nor will I ever forget the senior prom when a Borough girl, a friend of Nan Beverly’s, came over specifically to tell Sarah how pretty she looked, that the dress she was wearing really looked much better on Sarah than it had on her at last year’s junior prom.
Is it any wonder our adult lives should be so haunted? Over and over we go up and down the alley between the theater and the dime store, as my mother and I did today, moving through space, yes, but also through time, meeting ourselves, as Owen always says, coming and going. How beautiful Sarah looked in that dress. How important it must have been to that Borough girl, who wasn’t pretty, to undermine her beauty. How she must have wanted to tear the dress right off her.
When I see Buddy Nurt again, I’ll offer him money for my father’s jacket. I don’t want him wearing it.
Bridge of Sighs (2007)
Ice Harvest (screenplay, 2005)
The Whore’s Child (2002)
Empire Falls (2001)
Straight Man (1997)
Nobody’s Fool (1993)
The Risk Pool (1988)