July 11, 2016
ife in small-town America: idyll or nightmare? In our cultural history, each answer has passionate advocates. “The Andy Griffith Show,” which ran on CBS television from 1960 to 1968, was set in Mayberry, North Carolina, a hamlet of family, faith, neighborliness, and charm. Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street (1920) was set in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, a wasteland marked by intolerance, ignorance, vulgarity, narrow-mindedness, and petty resentments.
In the warm-hearted Nobody’s Fool (1993) Richard Russo portrayed the small, declining upstate New York town of North Bath as Garden of Eden more than Paradise Lost. His fine novel was made into an equally fine, wonderfully faithful movie the following year. Paul Newman played Donald Sullivan, “Sully,” a 60-year-old, hod-carrying, hard-drinking, effortlessly charming “case study underachiever.” Despite his limitations, Sully gives his stern former eighth-grade English teacher, now his landlady, reason to go on living. (The role of Beryl Peoples was played by Jessica Tandy, in her final film appearance.) The schoolmarmish “Miss” Beryl, as she’s universally known despite her long marriage to the school’s late football coach, still regularly asks Sully, “Does it ever bother you that you haven’t done more with the life God gave you?” “Not often,” he replies. “Now and then.”
Sully also confers “best friend” status on his pathetically worshipful co-laborer Rub in an Adam-like gift of naming. He teaches courage to his timid grandson Will, whose parents are divorcing and whose mother is leaving. At one point, Sully rescues a bathrobe-clad, deluded old woman walking the center line of a snow covered street by taking her arm and offering to bring her dancing. We come to understand that he holds the small town together with his integrity and cussedness, even though he can barely keep his own life from unravelling.
Like Mayberry, North Bath is innocent but replete with folly. Douglas Raymer, the town policeman and another of Miss Beryl’s disappointing composition students, shoots an old woman’s bathroom window while she sits on the commode. Sully’s one-legged lawyer not only loses all his cases but consistently bets incorrectly on how Judge Wapner will rule on The People’s Court. Big plans for a theme park called The Ultimate Escape stall when the chief out-of-town investor decides that the North Bath labor force just won’t do: “you got yourself some people who…behave funny. Hell,…, no offense, but they look funny.”
The garden of North Bath also has a serpent, but his appearances are brief and scattered in Nobody’s Fool. A darkly attractive “dime-store hood from [nearby] Mohawk” who “had spent his youth in and out of reform school and jail,” is known to us only by his first name, Roy. This minor character beats his wife and kidnaps their daughter, providing the novel’s only moments of bone-shivering darkness. Fortunately, his removal to prison allows Russo to paint North Bath in soft, glowing tones.
Russo’s equally beguiling new novel, Everybody’s Fool, takes up the story of Sully and North Bath ten years beyond the ending of Nobody’s Fool. Sully is now 70. His once settled existence has been disrupted by good fortune—he has inherited two houses—but ill health. Without undergoing the surgery he stubbornly refuses, Sully’s serious heart condition reduces his life expectancy to “two years, but probably closer to one.” The money means Sully doesn’t need to work, which is fortunate, since the heart trouble means he mostly can’t. He longs for his old life more than he enjoys his new one. Reflecting on his decades of manual labor, Sully muses ruefully: “What appealed to him, as near as he could tell, was its necessity. This was the thing about the work he and Rub used to do: nasty as it was, it all needed to be done.”
Even more important in Everybody’s Fool are the two characters Russo elevated from bit parts in the earlier novel to major roles. Roy, surnamed (we now learn) Purdy, has been released from prison. He’s determined to seduce and batter his ex-wife, then take revenge against everyone else who thwarted or offended him, including Sully. Chief of Police Raymer despairs over his own incompetence, knowing he must meet the challenge posed by the return of malevolent Roy. Russo told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross that “being inside [Roy’s] head made me feel unclean…. He does incredibly evil things and derives enormous pleasure in it…. There's no amount of hot water that cleanses you of that kind of, you know, knowledge of evil and its pleasures.” Roy presents himself as a changed man who found religion, but readers know what the people of North Bath only suspect: “It was obvious to Roy that God was all bullshit.”
Purdy is not the only serpent in the garden. An actual snake gets loose in North Bath, an escaped cobra being kept in a refrigerated apartment by another out-of-towner, this one a dealer in exotic reptiles. More broadly, the general sense of Eden going wrong includes the “Great Bath Stench,” a disgusting odor originating no one knows where; a “foul, viscous yellow goo oozing” from underneath a downtown construction site; lightning storms; and coffins rising from the ground in the badly landscaped cemetery. “Dead on the Move in Bath” is the headline in a neighboring town’s newspaper.
And then there’s Kurt Wright, a seductive teacher of political science at a North Bath liberal arts college, nothing like the ridiculous but harmless English professors who populated Russo’s hilarious academic novel Straight Man. Kurt is hired based on glowing letters of recommendation from his previous institution. Told in an anonymous phone call that “Kurt Wright was evil,” department chair Gus Moynihan “remembered actually chuckling at this. Who in the academy used such language? There words like ‘evil’ had long ago been replaced by others like ‘inappropriate.’” Within months of Kurt’s arrival, “the social fabric of Gus’s department began to fray. Longtime friends started falling out over misunderstandings that eventually would be traced back to something Kurt had said.” Soon, Moynihan was writing an ecstatic recommendation letter to another school. He later learns that after Wright moved there, “careers [were] ruined, apparently. Marriages wrecked. A suicide.”
Kurt Wright is Gus Moynihan’s problem, but it’s up to Sully and Chief Raymer to deal with Roy Purdy. Like Sully, the Raymer we meet at the start of the novel is in a downward spiral, despite what once seemed good fortune: being elected police chief. Raymer isn’t even sure how he won the election. “You seemed sort of…normal,” the owner of a shady bar tells him—“Rare in law enforcement. In my experience.’” Raymer’s own theory: “They were probably thinking of all the crimes they could commit.” In any event, Raymer won despite somehow conflating two suggested campaign slogans into one that read: “We’re not happy until you’re not happy.” He “supposed he could live with the fact that the job sucked if he was any good at it, but the truth was that he sucked.”
And then, unexpectedly, an alternate voice pops up inside Raymer’s head from deep within: Dougie, the name Raymer assigns to his alter ego “because the presence he felt seemed younger, like a kid brother. A mean one.” As Dougie, Raymer solves crimes, becoming a man of reason who moves “from evidence to inference to hypothesis to solution, by asking all the right questions.” Raymer realizes, however, that Dougie “managed to bring out both the best and worst in his host, making Raymer at once a better cop and a much-worse human being.” The price tag on the knowledge of good and evil is no less steep in North Bath than it was in Eden.
Russo was raised Catholic, and in interviews he often makes reference to the lingering effects of that faith. On the surface, religion in North Bath exists at the margins. The only clergy member to make an appearance is the insufferable gasbag who preaches at the funeral where Everybody’s Fool begins. Raymer surmises he must have an “academic affiliation,” due to “his windy nonsense and the confidence with which he delivered it.” No one is seen going to church in North Bath, and Purdy isn’t the only character who thinks God is a crock. Sully evens wonders whether God is to man as a “kid with a stick” is to the ants he’s tormenting—“vaguely curious but incapable of empathy for something so small and insignificant.”
And yet Eden infuses Everybody’s Fool. In Genesis, the God who banished humans from paradise put clothes on their backs to prepare them for the more difficult life that awaited outside the garden—and also gave them each other. Knowledge of good and evil, however dearly bought, was sure to come in handy in this new existence.
Along with the echoes of Eden come intimations of grace. Speaking as Douglas, now infused with Dougie’s hard-edged knowledge, Raymer says, “I think it’s possible for us to be better people tomorrow than we are today.” Russo’s narrator adds, “He had no idea, of course, whether any of these things were true in whole or in part. Still, what possible good could come of believing them otherwise?” By novel’s end, Sully even has his life-saving surgery—he is nobody’s fool after all. And Police Chief Raymer has become not just everybody’s fool, but in some odd way everybody’s holy fool.