CAMDEN, Maine - Earlier this year, Richard Russo bought an apartment in Boston. Flying to book events and to visit a daughter in London have made him a regular at Logan International, four hours from his rambling home overlooking Penobscot Bay. This way, he can catch a decent night's sleep before heading up the coast.
Although the decision was a practical one, it was lent an unexpected sweetness when Russo learned that the apartment was in a renovated glove-making factory. That bit of history sealed the deal.
Russo's grandfather had been a glove-cutter in the small town of Gloversville, in upstate New York's historic "leatherstocking district." Nowadays, you can't buy a glove in Gloversville, and his grandfather has been dead for 30 years. So to be able to buy such an apartment "seemed like some sort of validation of his dreams," Russo said. "I saw the possibility of closing the loop."
Coherence is what we do
Continuity means a lot to Russo, 59, who speaks in St. Paul on Oct. 7 for the Talking Volumes author series. His novels are complex stories set in the seemingly simple environment of small towns, bringing readers into several families, and within them, several generations. A character's actions never seem off-kilter, mostly because Russo establishes their motivations so thoroughly, sometimes to the point of a reader muttering, "All right, already."
Yet any impatience is offset by the experience of being presented with a fully formed narrative, an experience that Russo fears is on the wane.
Case in point: He saw the new Batman movie, "The Dark Knight," and was left shaking his head at what he found a stylish mess. "It doesn't track," he said. "Sure, B follows A, and C follows B, but A doesn't cause B. B doesn't cause C. Each scene is wonderfully crafted, but there's no coherence. And coherence is what we do, isn't it?"
Warming to the topic, Russo couldn't keep from pointing out the essential illogic in the movie's catchphrase, spoken by Heath Ledger's Joker, "Do I really look like a guy with a plan?"
"Yet all this time, that's precisely what we've been watching -- a guy who has planned all these things so well that --" Russo trailed off with an exasperated smile, apologizing for the rant. But his concern is real because of what happens outside movie theaters.
Not only can students do most of their research with Google, he said, they can specify keywords within an entry, enabling them to read only those sentences, then cut and paste what pertains.
"What you end up with is a paper in which all the connecting phrases have been yanked like teeth," Russo said. "When all is said and done, you have a bowl full of teeth, and you wonder, in a smile, how would these go?"
Then the warmth of his argument flared into his deepest concern.
"If we don't honor coherence, it's about more than what a novelist does; it's about what it does to our citizenship," he said. Will we explore all sides of an issue, sit through a whole debate, read an entire news story, seek more information instead of settling for less? "If we Google and still are too impatient to read a whole entry --" Again the trailing off, the exasperated smile. But this time, no apology.
Success without pretension
Russo comes across as an unassuming guy. Medium stature, medium build, medium hair. In interviews, he pokes fun at himself. He has said he has no idea why "Empire Falls" won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2002.
Gary Fisketjon, his editor at Knopf, first met Russo in 1984, when Russo was teaching at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
"He was in a not particularly wonderful teaching job, with no money, kids to think about raising and all the rest of it," Fisketjon said. When they reunited as writer and editor for "Empire Falls," almost 15 years later, "Richard had enjoyed a lot of success, the circumstances of his life had changed, radically really -- except that he hadn't changed at all. He's not a guy who lets success go to his head, or lets it influence his instincts."
Russo has lived in Camden for about 10 years, after retiring from teaching at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. His front porch looks out onto Hwy. 1, which, for most of the summer, is gridlocked with tourists visiting one of Maine's prettiest harbors, narrow and deep, with century-old schooners alongside sleek yachts.
Russo is perfectly happy to gaze upon it. "I prefer keeping at least one foot on dry land at all times," he said, laughing. His wife, Barbara, is in real estate, and daughters Kate and Emily have grown and left, although everyone's underfoot this particular week for Emily's wedding.
Upstairs, in an echoing room with the original wide plank flooring, is where Russo writes. It's sparely furnished and yet still a mess, albeit a medium mess. A leather chair holds court in one corner, awaiting the marathon reading of 50 to 60 books that awaits Russo this winter. Prize winners, you see, get tapped to help choose future prize winners. Fun for bakers, a slog for authors.
Living the right life
In a commencement address at Colby in 2004, Russo posed the question: "How does a person keep from living the wrong life?" His answer was the usual graduation boilerplate leavened with humor. ("Don't drink so much. There aren't going to be enough liver transplants to go around.") But the question itself sprang from his own wondering experience.
Russo's parents separated when he was young, and his mother moved from Gloversville to nearby Schenectady. His father was a character -- bartender, road builder, plumber, a guy who survived D-Day. "Hard physical labor seemed to suit him," Russo said. "He had the benefits of the G.I. Bill if he'd wanted it, but he didn't seem to."
Russo worked road construction alongside his father on summers home from college, "where I'd lifted nothing heavier than volumes of Chaucer." He'd enrolled at the University of Arizona in Tucson, its distance from home its chief attraction, only to find that his mother promptly moved to Phoenix. "Turned out she wanted to blow town as much as I did."
At that time, Russo genuinely could have asked, "Do I really look like a guy with a plan?" An anthropology major lasted one semester. English classes beckoned, filled with pretty girls. Eventually, he decided that he wanted to be a college professor.
The idea of writing came later, after he'd finished his Ph.D. His first book, "Mohawk," published in 1986, was well-received. That story was set in a dying town, but told with unexpected humor. Over the next decade, three others novels cemented Russo's reputation as a chronicler of characters whose unflagging optimism both aggravates and inspires. One of them, "Nobody's Fool," became a movie starring Paul Newman.
The exasperating optimist
One of Russo's perennial themes is exploring whether a glass is half-empty or half-full -- but he takes it a step further, wondering how it came to find that level.
In "Bridge of Sighs," Lou Lynch, the doomed milkman, always looks on the bright side, to the exasperation of his more jaded wife, Tessa. "Big Lou, he's the sort of guy where, once something good happens to you, you're much more likely to see it as the result of free will and hard work, more than the luck it probably was," Russo said. "And you can't blame him for wanting to see things in that light."
Russo calls himself a comic novelist, "but a comic novelist in the Shakespearean sense, not in the looser, more modern sense. It's not that I deal in laughs, exactly, and my characters don't always end up happily married. I mean, Mark Twain was a comic novelist, but there's never been a more serious book than 'Huck Finn.'
"Mostly, it's about not taking ourselves or the world in which we live so seriously that we can't see the hilarity in how we go about living our lives."
"Bridge of Sighs" is something of a departure, "by far the darkest of my novels," he said. "But it ends with a kind of, sort of, almost sense of success, which is what the tragedian doesn't give you."
Getting better is harder
Ask Russo what he does when he's not writing, and he doesn't miss a beat: "I don't think there's ever a time I'm not writing. I used to take weekends off, but Mondays were just too hard."
Yet his methods have changed as he's grown older and more experienced. It's all become much harder.
"When I was younger, writing badly never worried me at all," he said, smiling. When he was writing "The Risk Pool" (1988), it was all about getting the story on paper, typing pages at a time, confident that he could go back and fix the awkward sentence, the faulty continuity.
Now, though, he worries over his writing in smaller bites. "Maybe it's a question of faith," he said. "I have less faith that I will be able to get it right, so it haunts me." He spent six years working on "Bridge of Sighs," revision after revision. He stops when he realizes "that I'm just spinning my wheels, making cosmetic changes."
Abruptly changing the subject, Russo asked how Minnesotans responded to Jon Hassler's death last March. He recalled how, a few years earlier, he'd picked up one of Hassler's novels while vacationing on Martha's Vineyard, read two chapters, then returned to the bookstore to buy all of his books.
And then the transition made sense: "I fear that Hassler [whose books also plumb small-town concerns] was undervalued because he made it look effortless," Russo said. "You know, if you make it look easy, then how hard can it be?"
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185