Arts & Culture

Richard Russo returns to a darker, more mysterious Bath for 'Everybody's Fool'

JACKSON -- Apparently, there are real years and fictional years, which are something akin to dog years.

For Richard Russo, it has been 23 years since he first was our tour guide through North Bath, N.Y., in "Nobody's Fool." But when he returned this year to North Bath in "Everybody's Fool," only 10 "fictional" years had passed.

That trick solved a lot of problems: How to deal with the Internet, for example. Google was in beta in 1999. And cell phones were new and rare, which allows his characters to talk to one another at diners and bars rather than bask alone in the electronic glow.

In fact, mobile devices appear in just one scene, where the people who stop at the outskirts of Bath check their cellphones one more time before heading north where the signals fade away.

But Bath can't escape all that has happened to the world and the author since the late '90s.

The city, having suffered through a "golden age of self-loathing," is a much different place than the Bath of the late 1980s.

"This book, the feeling behind it, has been tempered by and informed everything that has happened to its author in the last 23 years," he told a crowd at Lemuria Books in Jackson after he read passages from both books that described different but equally optimistic banners strung across Main Street. "It's much darker. I like to think it is just as funny but it's much darker.

"And a lot of it is the dark things that have happened in all our lives in the last 23 years.

"And some of them have found their way into this book."

Much of that darkness comes from Roy Purdy, "evil with a capital E," and hands down the most despicable character Russo has conjured. He represents all those dark things that have crept into Russo's small town life.

His novels have all taken place in small towns, whether the "Mohawk" of his first novel, published while he was at Southern Illinois University, or the Thomaston of "Bridge of Sighs," the last novel he wrote before "Everbody's Fool."

Based on Gloversville

"They're all fictional, slightly different takes on this town (Gloversville, N.Y.) that formed my mother's character and formed mine in ways neither of us could escape," he said.

Donald Sullivan, the protagonist of "Nobody's Fool," who grew out of Russo's father's exploits in upstate New York, is back but he's a secondary character to Doug Raymer, the protagonist, who as a Bath patrolman was in the first novel just long enough for Sully to punch him in the nose.

Now he's the chief of police. But his prospects haven't improved. His wife, before the novel opens, died in a fall just as she was about to tell him she'd found someone new and was leaving.

Russo said it didn't make sense to make Sully the focus because that story is over.

"In my novels and most novels, the thing about your main character, if the book has ended truly and well, that character's conflict has been resolved in a satisfying way," he said. "Most really good books end in one of two ways, things have changed in some significant way, and it's either things will never be the same again or things will never change."

And when a friend sent him a newspaper clipping about a cop who after finding a garage door remote in his wife's car and went around town testing garage doors with it in order to find out who her lover was the fire was lit. "And Raymer raised his hand."

Secret behind optimism

Russo shows us a Bath even more frayed around the edges despite the optimism of the mayor, who we learn has a secret nearly as dark as anyone in town.

Optimism in fact, probably should be a sign of mental illness in a place as sorry as Bath, where time and again officials have bet on hackneyed projects that even to a casual observer seem unlikely to succeed, if not outright doomed from the beginning.

In "Nobody's Fool," it was the Ultimate Escape Fun Park, an amusement project swept away in a scandal. In "Everybody's Fool" it was "The Old Mill Lofts," which collapses, literally, early in the book.

The only winner has been Sully, who inherited his landlady's home after her son fled Bath before the dust around the Ultimate Escape had settled. He also hit a trifecta that he had been playing for years, twice in rapid succession. But even he has little to show for his good fortune. He still had just one friend, Rub, and a dog also named Rub who's just twisted enough to be at home in Bath. Add to that a grim prognosis from his physician.

His next odd job, if he lives long enough to take it on, is to try to rid what's left of the Lofts of the unnamed toxic goo that's seeping through the floor and likely the source of the stench that has been bedeviling the town for months.

Before long even the mayor has had enough.

"Something in these people's natures, he'd reluctantly concluded, was rigid, unalterable. They needed to believe that luck ruled the world and that theirs was bad and would would remain so forever and ever, amen, a credo that let them off the hook and excused them from truly engaging in the present, much less the future."

The main Fool

Raymer, easily the biggest fool, seems the perfect foil for the hapless town.

In the opening scene, he falls into an open grave, and he bumbles his way through most of the story.

That's the magic of Russo's writing. He makes the reader comfortable in the midst of adulterers, criminals and a supporting cast of doofuses because they're fun to be around.

"I like to spend as much time as possible among people who interest me and entertain me and who I can learn from," he said.

Characters such as Charice Bond, the book's new face, the person who keeps the police department from keeling over, and perhaps the least-flawed person in town.

Russo wondered if Charice isn't one of those secondary characters who has a story of her own, although he admitted he probably can't wait 23 years to finish a third book.

"I'd like to think it might be Charice," he said in answer to a question at Lemuria. "I'd have to find a situation for her, see if she and Raymer got together, re-imagine her life 10 years down the road and see if she really had that tattoo, which focused Raymer's attention and focused mine as well."

That tattoo? Just one of the many mysteries that urges "Everybody's Fool" along.

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