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Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo October 3, 2006

Posted by pvccbookclub in Current Discussion.
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If you haven’t yet read a novel by Richard Russo, you must, and Nobody’s Fool is a great introduction to his engaging style. The central character is sixty-year-old Sully, a stubborn, under-employed, arthritic curmudgeon. Underneath Sully’s crusty exterior is a deeply flawed yet sympathetic man, who longs to redeem himself in the eyes of his estranged son. Sully surrounds himself with a wild cast of characters who make his eccentricities seem practically normal. And yet, these people will soon seem familiar to you and their stories are irresistible.

As you can see from the cover of the paperback edition, this novel was made into a movie with Paul Newman. Although the movie is enjoyable, it can’t match the humor and heart of the book.

Questions to consider for discussion:

1. This novel’s title, Nobody’s Fool, is a punning reference to its protagonist, Donald Sullivan, who at age 60 is “divorced from his own wife, carrying on halfheartedly with another man’s, estranged from his son, devoid of self-knowledge, badly crippled and virtually unemployable–all of which he stubbornly confuse[s] with independence.” Why is Sully so insistent on remaining nobody’s fool? How has this determination affected his relationships with other people?

2. One consequence of Sully’s prickly autonomy is his tendency to go off on “stupid streaks.” Is Sully a stupid man? How would you evaluate a freedom whose defining characteristic seems to be the freedom to do the wrong thing at the wrong time?

3. From the beginning we know that Sully has a bad knee, and his refusal to treat–or even favor–it generates many of the novel’s complications. In what ways does this injury resonate with the novel’s themes?

4. Sully’s string of misfortunes may also be due to bad luck or malign predestination. Is he destined to be unlucky? To what extent are his actions and character predetermined?

5. Sully’s father brutalized him as a child. Sully deserted his son, Peter. Peter abandoned his timid eldest son, Will, to the mercies of his sociopathic little brother. What causes does the author posit for this four-generation history of cruelty and neglect?

6. Perhaps to compensate for Sully’s brutal father, Russo supplies Sully with a very good, if somewhat sharp-tongued, surrogate mother, Beryl Peoples. She may, in fact, be the most real and enduring attachment Sully has. How does their relationship compare with Beryl’s relationship with her real son, Clive, Jr.? How is the antagonism between Clive and Sully an extension of their childhood rivalry for the affections of Beryl’s late husband?

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1. Paula - October 4, 2006

Hello all,

Here’s some trivia for you: Richard Russo received his M.F.A at the University of Arizona and spent one year as a visiting assistant professor at Arizona State.

2. notme - October 19, 2006

Review of Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo.

Critic: Steve Brzezinski
Source: Antioch Review 52, no. 1 (winter 1994): 173-74.
Criticism about: Richard Russo (1949-)

[(review date winter 1994) In the following review, Brzezinski commends the ambitious scope of the narrative in Nobody’s Fool.]

Russo’s third novel [Nobody’s Fool] is an ambitious look at two topics currently out of favor in American literature: class and small-town America. Though the book is too long by at least 200 pages, it is peopled with extraordinarily well-drawn characters, most of them either poor and struggling or rich and bumbling, whose inevitable mistakes and missteps are chronicled in an excruciatingly comic yet deeply compassionate narrative. Russo’s fictional setting of Bath, New York, is a town down on its luck, in slow decline since the interstate highway was built, too far from Albany to experience the economic windfall of suburban gentrification. Much of the plot surrounds the hilariously doomed attempt to restore the town’s previous prosperity by convincing fast-buck financiers to build a theme park, The Ultimate Escape, in Bath. The reason the theme park is never built is that the money men ultimately decide that the Bath locals are simply too weird, and, if employed by the park, would scare off and otherwise disconcert the tourist trade.

Weird they are, and Russo’s achievement is to invent a completely believable fictional landscape peopled with assorted charlatans, buffoons, and chronic underachievers, all of whom he succeeds in making us care passionately about through the sheer force of the narrative. His characters, like Samuel Beckett’s, are inevitably falling down, but they always get up, only to fall down again. Russo would say it is not merely the getting up that makes people truly human, but the falling down as well. This dialectic between occasional triumph and inevitable catastrophe gives the book an unusual texture, both bleak and cheerful at the same time.

Source: Steve Brzezinski, Review of Nobody’s Fool, by Richard Russo. Antioch Review 52, no. 1 (winter 1994): 173-74.

Source Database: Contemporary Literary Criticism

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