Review of “Everybody’s Fool” by Richard Russo

Russo is one of my favorite contemporary writers. Everybody’s Fool  is not one of my favorite books.

Its predecessor, Nobody’s Fool, wasn’t either, though it was pleasant enough and a moderately accurate depiction of small town life and human nature. It certainly featured Russo’s depth and insight in drawing vivid characters and portraying them as they interact with each other, to some extent in everyday situations.

Everybody’s Fool takes place many years following the events of the first book, and it certainly isn’t bogged down with everyday situations. In the course of the 48 hours or so that the narrative covers:

  • a lovelorn cop reflecting on his wife’s accidental death just before she was about to leave him for another man faints and falls into an open grave at a funeral
  • a wall of a building under construction falls on the vehicle of an ex-con just released from prison, seriously but not devastatingly injuring the ex-con
  • the cop gets some “friends” to help him dig up the grave he’d fallen into, where he hopes to find a garage door opener that could help him identify his wife’s lover
  • the cop is struck by lightning at his wife’s grave
  • a cobra gets loose in town and gets mixed up with some snakes that had been cared for by a town derelict working for a mysterious stranger
  • the cop is nearly struck by lightning a second time when he falls asleep after having dinner with an employee with whom he finds himself falling in love
  • the ex-con beats his former mother-in-law nearly to death, stopped when Donald Sullivan, ostensibly the central figure in both books and the ex-lover of the ex-con’s former mother-in-law, beans him with a frying pan
  • the cop, formerly seen as generally incompetent, tracks down a hit-and-run driver who kills a local barhound and tracks down the person who killed the ex-con

Phew.  And this barely scratches the surface of all that’s going on within the characters of the book. It’s interesting to see how relationships have changed over time and individuals have developed since Nobody’s Fool. But if one were to honestly describe the first two-thirds of the book in two words, they would be “mean Mayberry.”  Bitterness, jealousy and sorrow dominate the emotions of all the characters. The mildly entertaining cynicism of Sully has turned into something akin to boorish bullying, and many of the characters are defined by their insecurities and selfishness more than anything else.

Of special note is how much of the story until very near the end is taken up with individual characters’ internal dialog rather than what they say or do. All this said, if you persevere into the final third of the book – which I admit I very nearly was unable to do -, you will be rewarded. Suddenly, you’ll find it hard to put the book down, and you’ll find that the dominant characters, most of the decent people in town, are in fact decent and in their way loving. Evil gets its comeuppance in unexpected ways, and hope springs realistic for the key characters.

Russo’s writing is always plenty engaging, and his descriptions in Everybody’s Fool are as vivid as ever. If you’re willing to put up with a substantial amount of early cynicism and wondering just where the hell this thing is going, you’ll find the ultimate payoff quite worthwhile. But I don’t find this book anywhere near as memorable or satisfying as, say, Bridge of Sighs or, in its way, Empire Falls.