When first we met him, in Richard Russo’s 1993 comic novel “Nobody’s Fool,” Donald “Sully” Sullivan was approaching senior citizenship with a track record as “a case study underachiever” and an incorrigible smart aleck. Sully had had a bad marriage, a bad relationship with his son and a bunch of bad jobs.
“Bad luck explains me,” he said. But this accursed upstate New Yorker also had a great big heart — he was your classic endearing rogue, the kind of guy you wouldn’t mind meeting again someday. (It didn’t hurt that Paul Newman played him in the movie adaptation.)
Evidently, Russo’s readers weren’t the only ones who have been wondering what Sully’s been up to. The author, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his novel “Empire Falls,” revisits his working-class hero in “Everybody’s Fool,” which finds the now 70-year-old Sully adapting to a series of fateful developments.
On the plus side, Sully finally has some cash — he’s won big at the racetrack and inherited a house. He’s also begun repairing important relationships and is about to see a grandson off to college. But it’s not like Sully can enjoy himself, because bad fortune, inevitably, has scheduled a return engagement. “Two years, the VA cardiologist had given him,” Russo writes. “Probably closer to one.”
His terminal heart condition emboldens Sully at several key junctures in “Everybody’s Fool.” Indeed, Sully’s selflessness will be a lifesaver for another of the novel’s key characters — of which there are many. The undisputed star of “Nobody’s Fool,” this time out Sully is part of an ensemble cast, as Russo sets in motion a busy plot that blends holdovers from the earlier book with a host of newcomers.
One story line concerns the illegal trade of exotic pets. Another focuses on an ex-con who’s just begging to be sent back to prison. A third involves a shady real estate developer’s plans to turn an old mill into swanky condos. Loosely connected at first, these threads converge in the novel’s satisfying final act — but not before Russo works his way through a series of uproarious set pieces that test his characters’ sanity and stick-to-itiveness.
These scenes are Russo at his best, and they’re what make him of one of our best humorists (his campus farce “Straight Man” is one of the funniest novels of the ’90s). Having done the hard work of explaining what’s at stake for every major character — his back story sketches are exceptionally rich — Russo then places them in hilarious predicaments and forces them to wriggle their way to safety.
Consider, for instance, Police Chief Douglas Raymer, who’s convinced that his wife was having an affair before her untimely death. The evidence against her? An unfamiliar garage door remote control found in her car. This discovery leads Raymer on a bizarre odyssey that will land him at the bottom of an open grave on two separate occasions. “There was just the one sound you made when you hit bottom and then the plume of dust,” reports a witness to Raymer’s first descent. “I don’t think I ever saw anything like it, and I was in Korea.”
This isn’t to suggest that Russo is only out for laughs. There are several harrowing confrontations in these pages, none of which end in predictable fashion, and virtually every character is wounded in one way or another. “Everybody’s Fool” is a decidedly bittersweet affair, a sequel that proves both entertaining and elegiac.
Kevin Canfield is a writer and critic in New York City.
By: Richard Russo.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 477 pages, $27.95.