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Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo (1993)



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It took me over a month to finish Nobody's Fool but that had more to do with me than with this excellent novel. I ended up loving it and connecting with it in a way I did not expect, and much more so than with Russo's Pulitzer winner, Empire Falls. I think this was mostly due to my familiarity with the area in which the novel takes place (upstate New York, north of Albany and near a fictionalized version of Saratoga Springs which I visited often as a child) and my familiarity with the characters peopling Russo's world. They were so real to me, all their foibles and kindnesses and self-destructive behavior, all the quiet despair of living on the edge in a dying town. But it's all rendered very subtly, with humor and grace.

The protagonist, Sully, is a ne'er do well handyman with an ex-wife, a mistress, a resentful son, confused grandson, and devoted best friend upon whom he heaps (usually good-natured) abuse.

This is how Sully's life goes:

"He didn’t know for sure, of course, but it just made fatalistic sense the truck would die today. Yesterday he’d had a job offer that was contingent upon having a truck, which meant the truck had to die.” (page 227)

And this is the enigma that is Sully - a good man with a good heart who mostly seems to make bad decisions and has trouble connecting with other people on anything but a superficial level (Ralph is his ex-wife's husband and Peter is his son):

“'People like Sully,' he said. 'I do myself. He’s…' Ralph tried to think what Sully was.

'Right,' Peter said. 'He sure is.'” (page 386)

There is not a huge moment of redemption in this novel, where the sun suddenly shines on Sully and all becomes clear. But he does seem to begin to come to have a sense of his impact on people and to care what that impact is. His former carelessness becomes unacceptable in the face of the growing affection between him and his grandson. He remains implacable in some things though, including his hatred of his deceased father who was a mean and bullying drunk who abused his wife and sons.

“But Sully could only surrender so much, and he understood that if he and Ruth married, she’d eventually have him visiting Big Jim’s grave with fresh flowers. She’d go with him and make sure he left them. And where was the justice in that? It would mean that in the end Big Jim had fooled them all and beat the rap, walked out of court on some flimsy Christian loophole called forgiveness. No. Fuck him. Eternally.” (page 543)

Harsh, yes, but I feel the same way about certain people and circumstances in my life, so again, the bell rang clear and true for me.

And a final quote, which I just loved, because it perfectly describes the complexity and mystery of love and what ties us to other people:

“For fairness and loyalty, however important to the head, were issues that could seldom be squared in the human heart, at the deepest depths of which lay the mystery of affection, of love, which you either felt or you didn’t, pure as instinct, which seized you, not the other way around, making a mockery of words like ‘should’ and ‘ought’. The human heart, where compromise could not be struck, not ever.” (page 545)

Highly, highly recommended, if you can tolerate a book in which not much seems to happen. Still waters run deep. ( )
5 vote katiekrug | Mar 21, 2016 |
Marvellous characterisation achieved with clever dialogue. Plenty of laugh out loud moments. I really enjoyed this. ( )
  HelenBaker | Feb 24, 2016 |
Blue collar life in an upstate NY town that has seen better days. Sully is an interesting character who has a knack for making poor decisions. Because his personal needs are minimal, he manages to usually not end-up in situations any worse than where he was. His self opinion is honest, but he does regularly cross the line when it comes to the law or societal mores. He understands why he is where is in life and is at peace with it. ( )
  Cricket856 | Jan 25, 2016 |
Sully is one of my favorite all time literary characters. ( )
  novelcommentary | Jun 29, 2015 |
Scamp, rascal, rogue – all descriptions that Donald Sullivan, Sully to his friends, wears like a comfortable old coat, thread bare from years of use but perfectly fitted in shape and movement. Sully is the subject of Richard Russo’s novel, [Nobody’s Fool], and Sully is a subject that could inspire decades of examination.

Blue-collar to his very pores, Sully angles for ‘off-the-book’ construction work in Bath, NY, a dilapidated and nearly forgotten town that perfectly matches Sully’s life. He rooms in the home of Beryl Peoples, his widowed high-school English teacher, greeting each new morning by asking her if she’s still alive. A busted-up knee keeps him from engaging any steady work, but he’s hoping that his one-legged attorney will complete a disability scam that will keep him flush. When he eats, he eats at the local pub, but mostly he drinks. He flirts, with every female he meets, including a most fervent flirtation with the man who employs him most frequently. And every day, like a visit to the holy confines of a cathedral, he bets the same 1-2-3 trifecta, knowing that his persistent faith will reward him someday.

None of that description does Sully justice, though. Because, at heart, Sully is more than a scamp. The scamp is a mask that Sully dons to cover the good-hearted, loyal friend that he is deep down. It helps him to suffer through the remaining pain of a brutally abusive father, one who made him believe that he would amount to little more than a bum. It helps him to weather the guilt and regret he feels for having failed as a husband and father. None of these truths ever cracks the confines of Sully’s mask, until he meets his grandson. In that moment he feels deeply what he is only able to admit to his friend Mrs. Peoples. She asks him if it ever bothers him that he hasn’t made more of the life God gave him. Sully responds, “Not often. Now and then.” That subtle, if sage, reflection sums up Sully and Russo’s book perfectly.

[Nobody’s Fool] is not populated with beautiful and charmed people, people whose life we envy or would like to assume. It is full of normal, broken-hearted people, battling regret and failure each day in hopes that the day will be bright and full of the hope they feel slipping away. Sully and his cohorts don’t make all the right choices and they don’t make all the wrong ones. They do the best they can with what they see before them.

Easily, the best part of Russo’s novel is the dialog that he writes for his characters. The banter is dripping with the sound of having been pinched from the friendly confines of a broken-down pub like the one Russo places in Bath, NY. Each page has a new surprise and a laugh, though often those laughs sink into melancholy thoughts.

The only knock on the book is that, toward the end of the book, Russo spins Sully into a well so deep and so debauched that it doesn’t seem humanly possible that Sully could ever make it out. It was the only time that the book didn’t feel absolutely authentic. Russo could have spared even a character like Sully some indignity and still made his point.

Bottom Line: A book full of normal people plodding through regret and the yearning to be better, even if it is outside their grasp.

4 ½ bones!!!!! ( )
2 vote blackdogbooks | Sep 1, 2014 |
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Upper Main Street in the village of North Bath, just above the town's two-block-long business district, was quietly residential for three more blocks, then became even more quietly rural along old Route 27A, a serpentine two-lane blacktop that snaked its way through the Adirondacks of northern New York, with their tiny, down-at-the-heels resort towns, all the way to Montreal and prosperity.
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This is my favorite book of all time. Sully walks off the page and into your heart. Give in.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679753338, Paperback)

In his slyly funny and moving new novel, the author of The Risk Pool follows the unexpected operation of grace in a deadbeat, upstate New York town--and in the lives of the unluckiest of its citizens. Soon to be a major motion picture starring Paul Newman, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith, and Jessica Tandy. Author reading tour.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:03:33 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

An unlucky man in a deadbeat town in upstate New York, Sully must overcome numerous obstacles--a bum knee, terminal underemployment, and a not-too-helpful group of friends--as he copes with a new problem, his long-estranged son.

(summary from another edition)

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