Tuesday, January 3, 2023

What Wred's Reading: The Risk Pool By Richard Russo

I like to read while I eat sometimes.  Usually, I buy a newspaper or magazine because if I spill ketchup on an article about Donald Trump or The Cleveland Browns, who cares?  It's going in the recycling bin shortly anyway (don't worry, recyclers, I'll try to scrape that ketchup off to make your job easier).  Recently, I couldn't find a decent magazine to read at the few remaining stores who carry magazines, and I was tired of spending $5 for a 3-page newspaper, so I figured I'd just buy a book and rip it up so it laid flat (it's annoying when the books flop over, and I have to use my greasy hands to find my place again).  So I browsed the local Goodwill bookstore to find a book that was interesting and wasn't an expensive first edition anyone would weep over if I ripped it up for easier mealside reading.  Fortunately, Russo's book flips and flops nicely, so it lays flat for the most part, so I haven't had to rip it up, which means it can go to another reader when I'm done.  

That is nice because it's a good book.  Russo's early work is like if Ray Carver wrote novels instead of short stories and skipped all the Gordon Lish editing that gave his work that minimalistic style that made the critics swoon and Carver weep.  Books such as this one, Mohawk, and Nobody's Fool are all nice slice of life stories about life in the rustbelt, with that specific rustbelt being upstate New York USA in the mid to late 20th century.

Russo loses it in his later work.  Presumably, he's mined his youth for all the novelistic possibilities and like many academic writers has little else subject matter to write about (though Straight Man is up there with White Noise for academic satires written by Italian-American straight male writers in the 1980s and 1990s though--admittedly a small demographic).  After Empire Falls, his last good novel, you can skip the rest of his output and not miss much.  Everybody's Fool, the sequel to Nobody's Fool, is particularly dreadful (Russo seems to just smoosh time together in it, aging characters for drama's sake, which considering he writes in a realistic mode, is quite jarring--I forget the exact details, but that's only because I've attempted to blot it from my mind in the same way that some Star Wars fans pretend only the first three movies exist, as in first three released, not the later prequels)--and it looks like Russo's continued to be out of ideas as his next novel is a sequel to that one called Somebody's Fool.


Anyway, don't let his later work scare you off from his earlier work, which is quite good, like a Dickens writing in the 20th Century, just good old-fashioned storytelling.  The Risk Pool, a story about a boy's relationship with his never-do-well father, was the only one of his early books that I never read, so I'm glad to be reading it (I probably got scared away from other Russo books after reading Bridge Of Sighs, another awful later book, or something).

For a book probably not as good as Russo's earlier work but probably better than his later work, please read Fast Guy Slows Down.

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