Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo

I love Sully. The elderly, stubborn pain in the rear protagonist of this novel is completely unavoidably loveable. And that's pretty much how all the characters react to him as well. They want to smack him (sometimes they do smack him) but they love him all the same. And the only way for that to feel believable--that such a jerk would be so universally loved--is for the reader to fall in love too. And how do you do that... it's a hard trick. Rabbit of Updikedom shares a lot of traits with Sully--cheats on spouses, sexualizes women constantly, abandons family members, behaves selfishly stubbornly and stupidly--and yet I want to smack Rabbit (twice) and don't love him at all. But Sully...I love Sully.

And I suppose it's because Russo makes Sully self-aware (he embarks the novel on a "stupid streak") and on the path to redemption (fresh start with grown son, good relationship with grandson), and a caretaker for quite a few members of the town (especially elderly women who he treats with great respect and affection). But it helps too that Sully is a working class guy who had a terrible father and who doesn't have a lot of prospects for the professional advancement that would get him out of this small town--which he doesn't want to leave anyway. Rabbit on the otherhand is an well-educated, well-off guy--and yes, that makes his behavior less forgiveable. Call it reverse classicism or maybe even condescension but it's real. The working class character--if treated fully and fairly (as in not stereotyped)--from small town America is probably almost always a more sympathetic character than the upper middle class guy from the suburbs.


Bradley said...

Ah. I love Russo. When I was a slacker high school student who never read at all, I spent spring break of my senior year reading (our of extreme boredom) The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, and Russo's Mohawk. Changed my life.

Part of the reason that Sully is a more appealing character than Rabbit, I think, is that Sully occasionally does the right thing. His loyalty to Rub and Ms. Beryl is particularly endearing. There's also something of an attempt to humanize his selfish decisions; whereas Rabbit just assumed the world owed him something more, Sully is the adult product of an abusive childhood. Not that that makes him noble, but it's easier to sympathize with a selfish person who is also in pain, you know?

If you haven't seen the movie with Paul Newman and Jessica Tandy, you should borrow it from us.

And if you haven't read it, I would recommend The Risk Pool; I think it's Russo's best novel.

Bradley said...

Another thought...

Perhaps part of the reason that Sully is so lovable is that we see him when his absolute worst behavior is behind him-- as you put it, the novel's really about his redemption, not his fall. Which would make him infinitely more likable than Rabbit, who at the beginning of Rabbit, Run is just starting to embrace selfishness and irresponsibility. Sully's "crimes" by the time we meet him are to do things like steal a snowblower from the jerk he sometimes works for, tranquilize a dog, and a be a pretty lousy boyfriend to his married girlfriend-- none of those sins are as bad as walking out on his wife and child, which we only hear about him doing.

Anyway. Like I said, I love Russo, which is why I'm still thinking about your post.

Ayse Papatya Bucak said...

WB--I absolutely agree with both your comments. (and yes, I've seen the movie, I think it helped, too, that I was envisioning Paul Newman (whose persona in quite a few movies is a perfect Sully) as I read). Of the Russo novels that I've read this is by far my favorite (though I liked the others: Empire Falls, Bridge of Sighs, and Straight Man) and I think part of why is there is something of a fairy tale feel to this version of the town. The novel puts a loveable sheen on not just Sully but all of the town screw-ups, alcoholics, senile, and nosey-parkers. Whereas Updike seems busy taking the sheen off of everything. I admire lots of things about the Rabbit books--there's a scene describing a Fourth of July parade that I kept on my wall for quite awhile as a reminder as to how deep description can run in terms of suggesting social commentary..but Rabbit, argh, he bugs me.

Bucky said...

I loved Nobody's Fool, and I'm wondering if anyone has any suggestions for similar books. I've read all of Russo's other works.

Terry said...

I still wish that I lived in Nobody's Fool. And every time I pick up Straight Man I still laugh. "Who's our first poet? Somebody remind me".