BOOK REVIEW / The man from Nowheresville goes to Hollywood: Richard Russo was born in a small town in upstate New York; as Rhoda Koenig found, he has not lost touch with the grit that shapes his hard-done-by characters

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'SMALL towns are not just important to my fiction,' Richard Russo says. 'They're important to me.'

Russo, who has been bracketed with Richard Ford and the late Raymond Carver as a Dirty Realist, grew up in one of the small towns of upstate New York which he has made the setting of his three novels: Mohawk (1987), The Risk Pool (1989), and now Nobody's Fool. Unlike Ford's, his characters are usually engaged in no more momentous pursuits than scrounging the money for a beer and staying out of harm's way. But their modest, scruffy lives, if not glamorous, are absorbing enough to have won Russo appreciative reviews and, with his newest book, the attentions of Hollywood: Nobody's Fool will be made into a movie directed by Robert Benton, who is now considering Gene Hackman or Robert Duvall for the part of Sully, the amiable but tormented drunk, locally renowned as 'the uncontested master of the futile gesture'.

Russo was born 43 years ago in Gloversville, a town whose name, like that of nearby Mechanicville or Tannersville, rings with the mockery of obsolescent dreams. The pre-Revolutionary towns were given bright, up-to-date tags when 19th-century industrialisation promised a booming future. In the past generation, though, most of the upstate industries, bludgeoned by foreign competition, have expired, with a dying discharge of cancerous pollution up and down the Mohawk valley. 'There are men I went to school with,' Russo says, 'who are really happy to be working in a local chemical plant for 12 dollars an hour. Their bodies are covered with rashes, but they won't go to a doctor and get checked out because it might mean they would be told to quit their jobs.'

Such a background makes Russo impatient with novelists whose idea of a tragic character is a millionairess who sees a wrinkle in her make-up mirror. His grandfather began the family hard-luck saga by emigrating from Italy when he heard that Gloversville did not have a shoemaker: 'He had no idea of what America was, let alone New York State. He came with his tools and his opera cape, and he arrived just when the factories wiped out the demand for handmade shoes.' The shoe repairman, as he had to be, had a son who worked in the leather factories and on construction crews and had many other jobs, 'some of which my family didn't want me to know about'. He separated from Russo's French-Canadian mother not long after they were married, and made only sporadic appearances in his son's life until Russo was 18: 'That is the legal drinking age in the State of New York.' More comfortable in the role of drinking buddy than that of parent, Russo's father introduced him to the world of sometimes philosophical, sometimes violent ne'er-do-wells who populate his novels. 'Ned (in The Risk Pool) has 20 or 30 negligent fathers, but the slender things they contribute do add up.'

Russo did some heavy labour early on, but by the time he was ready for higher education he knew that his future, if he wanted one, would have to lie elsewhere. He went to the University of Arizona, about as far as you can get from Gloversville without leaving the continental United States, intending to study anthropology. But, while he was there, he discovered the books he should have read in high school - 'When everyone else was reading John Barth and William Gass, I was reading Twain, Eliot, Faulkner, Jane Austen, Melville and Dickens.' Russo went on to teach literature and fiction writing, and even after the success of his novels he still does (he is now at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, where he lives with his wife and two daughters). Unlike many such teachers, he doesn't consider his job merely a tiresome financial necessity: 'Teaching undergraduates is a way of staying honest. The more you write, the more you learn about writing, and the more you're tempted to substitute finesse for reality. When I teach a lesson in the basics of characterisation or conflict, I can't do it without thinking of what I'm writing at the moment.'

What is presently preoccupying Russo is a novel, partly comic, with an academic setting, which is about 200 pages along, and another novel set in upstate New York, which exists only in his mind and is 'just flat-out dark. The one I'm writing has a lot of problems, so I'm very tempted to abandon it for the one that is in a state of non-existent perfection.'

For all the similarities between the mood of his country now and the Britain of a few generations ago - a once-great imperial power faced with loss of status and riches, suffering from ethnic and cultural balkanisation - Russo thinks that America's heritage of boundless optimism makes it different: it generates a fiction that responds to the betrayal of promise with a more extreme fear of 'what is waiting in the shadows'. Despite the gloomy prognosis of Russo's characters' towns and lives, he manages to contrive small victories - if only in battles of wit - for these hard-done-by people who gave him the tools with which he works today. 'Some of the language I hear in academe is so empty that it chills my blood. But some of the richest language I ever heard was what I heard growing up. Those people loved to talk. And they all had stories to tell.'

'Nobody's Fool' is published by Chatto at pounds 15.99

(Photograph omitted)