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Author Spotlight: Richard Russo

Author Spotlight: Richard Russo

Written by Nick Philip, Adult Services Supervisor

Richard Russo is one of the great storytellers of the American Northeast, and his newest book, Somebody’s Fool, is due to hit the shelf here at PGTPL very soon. Somebody’s Fool completes the Nobody’s Fool trilogy Russo started in 1993, checking in once more with Peter, Raymer, and Ruth, all residents of North Bath, NY. Not only is North Bath facing annexation by a neighboring town, but the discovery of a dead body in the region heightens the anxiety felt in this pocket of upstate New York. Russo is at his best painting this kind of rich tableau of small-town life, doing so with a smiling understanding of his characters at their highs and their lows. If you’d like to further explore his works, here’s a rundown of his previous novels.

Book cover for Richard Russo's Empire FallsEmpire FallsBook cover for Richard Russo's Straight Man

The winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Empire Falls follows Miles Roby, the manager of a diner in the eponymous Maine town, and the various friends and family in his orbit, such as his vain ex-wife Janine, their teenage daughter Tick, Miles’ charming ne’er-do-well father Max, and Miles’ employer, town matriarch Francine Whiting. Miles’ past, present, and future, and the role of the town of Empire Falls, are explored in great detail. Both heartbreaking and funny in equal measures, Empire Falls was also adapted into an HBO miniseries starring Ed Harris as Miles, Paul Newman as Max, Joanne Woodward as Francine, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as a mysterious man from Miles’ childhood, with Russo himself writing the teleplay. 

Straight Man

Given that Russo was an English professor until 1996, it only makes sense that there would be a campus novel in his oeuvre. Straight Man focuses on the tumultuous life of West Central Pennsylvania University English professor Hank Devere as he faces an uptick in complications in his personal and professional life. The AMC series Lucky Hank, starring Bob Odenkirk as Hank, is adapted from Straight Man and just completed its first season on AMC. 

Book cover for Richard Russo's Bridge of SighsBridge of SighsBook cover for Richard Russo's Nobody's Fool

Russo’s 2007 novel Bridge of Sighs explores the relationship between two friends, Lucy and Bobby. While they both grew up in Thomaston, New York, they have lived very different lives. After marrying Sarah 40 years ago, Lucy owns a handful of convenience stores in the Thomaston area that have catapulted his family to respectability. Bobby, on the other hand, fled upstate New York decades ago and now lives as a famed painter in Italy. The exploration of the meaning of home, both to the expatriate and to those who never left, catches everybody who ever lived in a town like Thomaston.

Nobody’s Fool

Published in 1993, Nobody’s Fool begins our relationship with the town of North Bath and Sully. This lovable freelance construction worker drinks, gambles, and schmoozes himself through life while boarding with his former teacher, Miss Peoples. Sully’s life becomes interesting as his landlady’s son tries to kick him out of the house, his estranged son, Peter, comes home for a visit, and issues with women arise. It is a remarkably endearing book with stakes set at the perfect level for an engaging, low-stress read, and it sets up Sully and North Bath as places you’ll want to revisit. Director Robert Benton adapted Nobody’s Fool the following year, starring Paul Newman as Sully, Jessica Tandy as Miss Peoples, Bruce Willis as Carl, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the young police officer Raymer, an important character in later visits to North Bath.

Book cover for Richard Russo's That Old Cape MagicThat Old Cape MagicBook cover for Richard Russo's The Risk Pool

2007’s That Old Cape Magic is another campus novel in the vein of Straight Man, this time focusing on Jack Griffin, a one-time Hollywood screenwriter turned college professor in New England. The book catches Jack at a crossroads, stuck between the decision to keep his happy life as a family man or get back into the Hollywood game. Above all, this is a book about family, as Jack’s relationships with his wife, daughter, and parents play deep roles in his past and future.

The Risk Pool

1988’s The Risk Pool returns to Mohawk, New York to follow the lives of Ned Hall and his father, Sam, who is a rogue cut from the same cloth as Russo’s future hero, Sully. Ned, now a writer himself, narrates the story from the present day. He tells the story of growing up under the not-so-watchful eye of his reprobate father, falling in love, and having the misadventures one would expect of a child raised in bars and OTBs. The book is reportedly semi-autobiographical, as Russo’s father and Sam shared many characteristics, which may explain the prevalence of characters like Sam, Sully, and Max Roby in his work. (As an aside, seeing Paul Newman cast twice as characters modeled after your own father must really be something).

Book cover for Richard Russo's MohawkMohawkBook cover for Richard Russo's Everybody's Fools

Russo debuted as a novelist with this 1986 book, which introduces the town of Mohawk. The narrative follows the intertwined families of two old leather workers, Mather Grouse and Rory Gaffney. Mohawk and its residents struggle to stay afloat as the local leather tanning industry is in a state of decline. While the complications in this book are a little more dire than those in other Russo books, the bones on which he’s built many of his stories are still there.

Everybody’s Fool

Twenty-three years later, Russo revisits North Bath and finds Sully grappling with aging, both the power it brings and the health issues that come with it. Given these issues, much of the novel follows Police Chief Raymer, whose wife intended on leaving him for a local lover but passed away. Trouble rears its head much more throughout this book as the return of Roy Purdy, an abusive lowlife, looms over the goings-on. By the end of the book, you’ll see why Russo can’t quite quit North Bath.


Book cover for Richard Russo's Chances AreChances Are…

Russo’s most recent book, written in 2019, treads a different path than much of his earlier work. It follows three old college friends during a weekend on Martha’s Vineyard reminiscing about their college days in the 1960s. While there, Lincoln, Teddy, and Mickey decide to figure out what happened to a woman, Jacy, whom they all loved that disappeared 44 years prior. With this mystery, Russo uses suspense in his storytelling previously unexplored by him, an interesting reinvention to make 39 years after his debut novel.


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