A labourer with a broken knee, Sully rents a spacious apartment but occupies only a corner of it with his metal dinette and clapped-out toaster. Sully has nothing. Except, that is, an hysterical ex-wife, the son he abandoned emotionally, his long-time, long-suffering mistress and assorted friends ranging from his one-legged Jewish lawyer to a smelly, dwarf-like workmate.
The laughs come easily in Richard Russo's feel-good novel. But by the end Sully, having dodged responsibility all his life, achieves reconciliation of a sort with his downwardly mobile professor son and finds a new tenderness in his relations with his nervous, sensitive grandson.
Nobody's Fool begins with a description of Bath, a town of sprawling Victorian houses and giant elms somewhere in upstate New York. Fallen on bad times after a brief prosperous spell as a 19th-century spa, Bath anticipates a brighter future when the planned leisure complex, the Ultimate Escape Fun Park, will bring investment and jobs and more importantly restore its rank above its uppity neighbour, Schuyler Springs.
Russo's previous novels, Mohawk and The Risk Pool, won him praise as a chronicler of American small-town life. Yet there's something of the studio lot about his towns. Bar-room banter is just a bit too slick, the local old ladies a tad too eccentric. You are prepared to like Sully's landlady Beryl, eightysomething and the only wise character in the book. A retired schoolteacher who once taught Sully and his cohorts, she proves that generosity, responsibility and independence are not mutually exclusive. But what might have been endearing becomes cute when Beryl confides in an African mask on the wall and the photograph of her dead husband.
Selfish Sully is always the loveable rogue. Okay, he gives a guard-dog a heart attack by feeding it pills but he's kind to senile Hattie, the bar-owner. He constantly humiliates Rub his workmate but, heck, he loves him really. He punches a cop when he's angry but even the judge knows the cop should have ducked. All of this can make you want to resist the wryly humourous tone and demand more grit.
Russo's idiomatic, direct style makes this big book (549 pages) easy to read, likeable even, and his dialogue is persuasive:
' 'If you'd use your lunch hour to eat lunch this wouldn't happen,' Sully observed. 'This used to be a nice peaceful town. Now everybody has to go home between twelve and one to make sure your car isn't in the driveway.'
'I wish it was just between twelve and one that they checked,' Carl said. 'I can take my lunch break whenever I want'.'
Russo's great strength is his depiction of family dynamics: the boy who feels relief when his father's anger turns from him to his mother and she, not he, takes the blows; the older brother, persecuted by a younger sibling's violence, who cannot make the adults understand why he simply can't hit back; the emotional blackmail exerted by Vera, Sully's ex-wife, which makes the son for whom she has suffered everything resent the pleasure she takes in suffering.
But these insights aside, Nobody's Fool skates on the surface. The storytelling lacks edge. Russo has a way of missing out scenes, then jumping back to fill you in on what happened. Explanation replaces the dramatic moment. It has the effect of creating surprise, but reducing tension.
When we glimpse the truly sordid, it is as if Russo cannot bear to follow where that leads. A gentle character remembers getting a blow-job at 18 along with his five of his buddies. It was humiliating, terrible, horrible. For him. Never mind what the girl felt. Her task is to be an example of hateful womanhood, who embarrasses the teenager by calling him Mr Limp.
There's a strange kind of romanticism here, as if the chronic drunks, adulterers and gamblers are nothing more than rather wayward children. 'Surely they were a different species,' muses Miss Beryl. 'Compared to women's, men's needs were so simple.' Russo's women are neurotic, freakishly ugly, downtrodden, sexually predatory.
To be sympathetic, they have to be octagenarian and nutty enough to talk to dead people. In Bath, New York, men stick together and real women love them for it.