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Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo Knopf, New York, 2016
“Everybody’s Fool” is a delightful return to Robert Russo’s world of upstate New York and the fictional town of North Bath. In fact it is a reunion of sorts, with principals that were so engaging in his beloved 1993 novel “Nobody’s Fool.” Best known among them was the good-hearted but impulsive Donald “Sully” Sullivan who is somehow the reigning authority figure in depressed North Bath. Although he’s charismatic, Sully is no model citizen. Played so memorably by Paul Newman in Robert Benton’s memorable 1994 film version, Sully was relatively vigorous in the earlier book.
In fact, “Nobody’s Fool” was built around his magnetic character with side trips into the points of view of the subsidiary characters. This sequel is both more ambitious and more diffuse. We are back at the White Horse Tavern and its denizens. But Sully is now in his 70s, with congestive heart failure and no longer the full center of attention. But Russo can’t help making him irresistible even when he’s semi-benched.
In the intervening years Sully has come by some unexpected good fortune. Long time North Bath teacher Miss Beryl Peoples (Jessica Tandy in the film) has died and left him her house on Main Street, he’s profited from the selling of his late father’s property and his luck has changed at the race track. But its hard work to keep his failing health from the most important people in his life, such as Ruth, the married woman he carried on with for years, the slow-witted Rub Squeers, who worries that he and Sully aren't still best friends and Sully’s son and grandson, for whom he was mostly an absentee figure (and now a regretful one). And there is Carl Roebuck (Bruce Willis in the film) owner of Tip Top Construction whose life-long run of luck might now come to ruin. He and Sully have a long love-hate relationship.
A lot of the focus has now shifted to Doug Raymer, the police chief who was played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the film version. Russo has said that once his characters have been embodied by actors, he keeps on writing with the actor in mind. (By the way, unlike most authors, Russo was very happy with the film version.) Raymer is less heroic than Sully, a bit buffoonish and obsessed with his dead wife and the identity of the man she was about to leave him for when she had a tragic accident. Throughout the chapters, Raymer careens from one folly to the next, which includes digging up a judge’s grave, getting struck by lightning and saving a busload of folks from a loose cobra. He does rise to the occasion tracking down a hit-and-run driver and putting an end to the criminal career of the truly unsavory Roy Purdy. “Everybody’s Fool” also has a slew of dotty women, all of whom seem to have the interesting Sully in their sights for one reason or another. Lastly a character nicknamed “Spinmatics Joe” for both his xenophobia and his stubborn inability to pronounce “Hispanics” has a brief spot on the novel’s active stage
Everybody’s Fool is a story about very real people caught in the everyday woes and worries of a small hamlet. It is filled with humor, heart, hard times and you like these people or at least find them interesting, possibly because their various faults make them so stridently human. Taken together at over 1.000 pages the two “Fool” books represent an enormous achievement, creating a richly detailed world. North Bath is real. Sully is real and so is the White Horse and Miss People’s house on Main Street. This is classic Russo—and a crowning achievement from one of the greatest storytellers of our time. “Everybody’s Fool” is highly recommended. If you have not read “Nobody’s Fool” perhaps read it first.
23 Jun 2016