Reviewed by Donna Meredith
Richard Russo is a beloved novelist known primarily for his stories of life in declining northeastern factory towns, so a reasonable person might question why his work deserves space in a literary review purporting to be southern.
In short, the University of South Carolina Press recently released Understanding Richard Russo, a thorough and insightful examination of Russo’s work by Kathleen Drowne, an associate professor of American literature at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla. The psychological and cultural damage caused by unemployment that Russo explores is relevant beyond any particular region, and is likely to become more so as human labor is less in demand due to technological advances.
Russo is the author of seven novels, one memoir, and two short story collections, including the 2002 Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, Empire Falls. He grew up among leather workers in Gloversville, New York, and later escaped to the University of Arizona. This background lends authenticity to Russo’s fictional towns—such as Mohawk, North Bath, and Empire Falls—because he understands the lives of working class men and women.
Drowne’s analysis contains nine chapters: one on the man himself, one on each of the novels, and one on Russo’s other works. She presents the novels in the order in which they were written. While she looks at each work separately, she also extrapolates the major themes and recurring character traits that distinguish his works. Interviews with the author are widely quoted throughout the analysis.
Drowne cites Dickens, Twain, Fitzgerald, and Steinbeck as major influences on Russo. In comparing Russo’s novels to those of these literary greats, one can see similar techniques and themes. Russo gravitates toward omniscient narration, uses humor to make exposure of American flaws more palatable, and offers convincing portrayals of working class people. Russo, Drowne notes, uses “disfranchised, white, small-town, blue-collar workers as the lens thorough which to view much larger social and human issues of love, loss, and opportunity.”
Though Russo’s debut novel, Mohawk, has “significant strengths,” Drowne feels “it is impossible to read it alongside Russo’s later works and not see the extent to which the author has developed and matured as a storyteller.”
His second novel, The Risk Pool, continues the theme of environmental contamination and the “tanneries’ culpability in poisoning the water and people of Mohawk.” This second novel tackles the issues of “dysfunctional and unstable families, especially their effects on children who find themselves in unpredictable situations” and “how the have-nots find ways to live in the same world as the haves.” The protagonist Ned believes he is lucky, and part of his luck stems from his willingness to leave Mohawk behind. Drowne believes Russo acknowledges that “only a few ever seem to escape and that those who do are forever marked by their experiences.” This novel begins Russo’s long exploration of “complicated father-son relationships.” It also explores “the power and value of community and communal bonds,” a theme continued in his other novels.
Drowne notes that, in Nobody’s Fool, “[n]early every character is divorced, widowed, or unhappily married; not a single healthy, happy relationship exists between the men and women of the story.” Instead the novel is “full of the love found in true friendship.” Once again, this novel “wrestles with questions of luck and how much of one’s fate really relies on luck to the exclusion of talent, merit, effort, or other qualities.”
Of Russo’s novels, the only one to veer away from the setting of the factory town is Straight Man. This academic satire is drawn from Russo’s experiences as an English professor and deals with “department squabbles, incompetent administrators, ever-looming budget cuts, and marginally prepared students.”
One of Russo’s most beloved characters, Miles Roby, appears in Empire Falls. Despite setbacks, Miles “demonstrates a truly Christian way to live in the world.” Readers love Miles for his “self-sacrifice, tolerance, and acceptance of forces he cannot completely understand.” Miles, like other Russo heroes, works at “thankless, often low-paying dead-end jobs.” His heroes “suffer the insecurities of lives built on a fluctuating economy, a surplus of workers, and a general lack of jobs.” Russo claims his heroes aren’t “successful in the ways that we like to measure success, and yet he sees in their everyday lives “a kind of heroism.”
A more recent novel, Bridge of Sighs, is set in two primary locations: Venice and the fictional town of Thomaston, New York, another crumbling upstate New York factory town. But it would be a mistake to dismiss Russo as a regional writer who primarily writes about place. Drowne points out that Russo says that people tend to “confuse class and place.” He writes about class, and this is borne out in Bridge of Sighs, where the poorest citizens reside in West End, the African Americans reside in a neighborhood known as the Hill, and the working-class more economically mobile families live in the East End. The moneyed class lives in the Borough. Lucy, a mother, tries to explain class division to her son: “In America . . . the very luckiest were insulated against failure, just as it was the unavoidable destiny of the luckless to remain thwarted.” She points out that identity is often tied to the street people lived on. This holds true throughout our country.
The universality of Russo’s themes makes an analysis of his work appropriate for inclusion in any literary review. He is a bard of the working class and a chronicler of small-town America. Crowne has done a remarkable job of exploring the characters, settings, and themes that make Russo’s novels classics in American literature.