Russo, Richard 1949–
Russo, Richard 1949–
PERSONAL: Born July 15, 1949, in Johnstown, NY; son of James W. Russo and Jean Findlay (LeVarn) Russo; married; wife's name Barbara Marie; children: Emily, Kate. Education: Received B.A.; University of Arizona, Ph.D., 1980, M.F.A., 1981.
ADDRESSES: Home—Maine. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Knopf Publishing, 299 Park Ave., Fourth Floor, New York, NY 10171.
CAREER: Novelist. Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, former fiction instructor; Colby College, Waterville, ME, former professor.
MEMBER: Associated Writing Programs.
AWARDS, HONORS: Pennsylvania Council of Arts fellow, 1983; annual award for fiction from Society of Midland Authors, c. 1989, for The Risk Pool; Best Books of 2001, Library Journal, and Pulitzer Prize in fiction, 2002, for Empire Falls.
Mohawk (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 1986.
The Risk Pool (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 1988.
Nobody's Fool (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 1993.
Straight Man (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 1997.
(With Robert Benton) Twilight (screenplay), Paramount, 1998.
(Author of introduction) The Collected Stories of Richard Yates, Holt (New York, NY), 2001.
Empire Falls (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 2001.
The Whore's Child and Other Stories, Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor of short fiction to periodicals, including Prairie Schooner, Mid-American Review, and Sonora Review. Contributing editor of Puerto del Sol.
ADAPTATIONS: Nobody's Fool was adapted as a screenplay by Robert Benton, produced by Paramount in 1994, starring Paul Newman; Empire Falls was adapted as a 3-hour mini-series by Russo for HBO, directed by Fred Schepisi and starring Paul Newman. The series aired in May, 2005.
SIDELIGHTS: Dubbed the "Stendahl of blue-collar America" by Tom Bissell in Esquire, Pulitzer Prizewinning author Richard Russo is noted for his novels depicting life in the declining small towns of America. In his first two highly acclaimed books, Mohawk and The Risk Pool, he focuses on the estrangement and melancholy felt by many of the residents of Mohawk, a fictional locale in upstate New York. Nobody's Fool is set in a similar town called North Bath, while his fourth book, Straight Man, takes place at a third-rate university in an isolated Pennsylvania town, presenting an academic satire. In his fifth novel, Empire Falls, which earned the writer the 2002 Pulitzer, Russo returns to the blue collar milieu of his earlier novels, but also blends comedic touches found in Straight Man. Russo is also the author of a collection of short stories, The Whore's Child and Other Stories, as well as screenplays, and has been compared to such renowned American writers as Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis. According to Hilma Wolitzer in Tribune Books, he "brilliantly evokes the economic and emotional depression of a failing town, a place where even the weather is debilitating and the inhabitants seem to struggle merely to stay in place."
Russo's first novel, Mohawk, opens in 1967. A leather-tannery town that falls victim to increasing unemployment as well as chemical dumping in its water supply, Mohawk is home to such working-class characters as Dan Wood, who is bound to a wheel chair due to an automobile accident; Anne, an intelligent woman in love with Dan, though he married her cousin; Mather Grouse, Anne's father, who, while a proud and decent character, is guilt-ridden over incidents in his past; and Rory Gaffney, an unsavory man with a propensity toward violence. "Nearly every one of these people … has suffered some sort of terrible loss," related Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times. For this reason, decided the reviewer, the work "has a tendency to swerve toward contrived melodrama." Kakutani concluded, though, that Mohawk "remains an immensely readable and sympathetic novel, a novel that attests to its author's considerable ambition and talent. Mr. Russo has an instinctive gift for capturing the rhythms of smalltown life." Likewise, David Montrose declared in the Times Literary Supplement that Mohawk is "an accomplished piece of fictional architecture."
Russo followed Mohawk with The Risk Pool, "a far more ambitious work, with a Dickensian sprawl and charm," according to Wolitzer. Narrated by Mohawk resident Ned Hall, the work spans thirty years of Ned's life as he is caught between feuding parents. Ned's father, Sam, a carousing gambler and petty thief, abandons the family for the first several years of Ned's childhood. After Ned's mother, Jenny, suffers a mental breakdown, Sam claims his son for a time, toting him to local pool-halls and bars. As the story progresses, Ned—shuttled between both parents before leaving for college—tries to both understand and earn the love of his unpredictable father.
The Risk Pool elicited widespread praise. Calling it a "superbly original, maliciously funny book," Jack Sullivan asserted in the New York Times Book Review, "It is Mr. Russo's brilliant, deadpan writing that gives their wasted lives and miserable little town such haunting power and insidious charm." Similarly, Kakutani declared The Risk Pool "fine, closely observed" and "full-bodied," maintaining that Russo writes with "genuine passion" and a "straightforward and newly authoritative narrative approach." The reviewer continued, "What's more, with Ned and Sam, Mr. Russo has succeeded in creating characters with the emotional weight of people we've known in real life. They embed themselves in our imaginations, and their personal losses—of love, of hope and of ambition—become an elegy for the town of Mohawk itself, for a time and place on the verge of vanishing from the American scene."
In his next novel, Nobody's Fool, Russo moved to a different town in the same region of upstate New York. Unlike Mohawk, the fictional town of North Bath has a glamorous past from a time when mineral springs brought fortunes to the area. Those springs suddenly, mysteriously dried up in 1868, however, and the town has never recovered. North Bath is a dark reflection of its prosperous neighbor, Schuyler Springs—which is Russo's fictionalized rendering of Saratoga Springs, a wealthy resort town.
"I needed a different kind of environment," Russo explained in a Publishers Weekly interview with Sybil Steinberg. "There wasn't any sense in Mohawk of a greater day, a kind of mythical past which the inhabitants harked back to as a Golden Age. Also, I needed a rich relative right down the road in order to make comparisons and address the book's central issues of luck and free will and fate. Demographically, Mohawk wouldn't work." Nobody's Fool has a large cast of eccentric characters, vividly brought to life by Russo. Novelist E. Annie Proulx, reviewing the novel for Tribune Books, called it a "rude, comic, harsh, galloping story of four generations of small-town losers, the best literary portrait of the backwater burg since 'Main Street.' Here is a masterly use of the wisecrack, the minor inflection, the between-the-lines meaning. Heavy messages hang under small-talk like keels under boats. Russo's pointillist technique makes his characters astonishingly real, and gradually the tiny events and details coalesce, build up in meaning and awaken in the reader a desire to climb into the page and ask for a beer."
With his fourth novel, Straight Man, Russo moved from New York to Pennsylvania for a tale of petty politics at an insignificant state college. The book is "hilarious," in the opinion of New York Times Book Review writer Tom De Haven. The critic went on to say that despite the abundant humor, the author is certainly "interested in more than generating laughter," and called Straight Man "the funniest serious novel I have read since … Portnoy's Complaint." The central figure is Hank Devereaux, the chairman of the bitter, paranoid English department. Devereaux reacts to possible cuts in the department's budget by putting on a Groucho Marx-style fake nose and glasses and appearing on the local evening news, holding a live duck by the neck and threatening to kill a duck a day until the money is assured. "As in Russo's earlier novels, there is a lot of ambling and driving around, and frequent stops along the way," reported De Haven. "Plot is a minor consideration…. The novel's greatest pleasures derive not from any blazing impatience to see what happens next, but from pitch-perfect dialogue, persuasive characterization and a rich progression of scenes, most of them crackling with an impudent, screwball energy reminiscent of Howard Hawks's movies."
Ron Charles, a reviewer for the Christian Science Monitor, described Straight Man as a "fully written novel" that is "neither sad nor overwrought for he evinces plenty of elegance and flawless timing. He demonstrates that it's possible to laugh at, and with, someone simultaneously." Charles also commented on the complexity found in the author's work: "Russo writes repartee that crackles with wit but never slides into artifice. Though his characters are often struggling against deep-seated sadness, the force of his wit is enough to convince us that such pain and sadness are not inevitable or final." Proulx affirmed that enthusiasm for Russo's skill, declaring, "If ever time travel is invented, let Richard Russo be first through the machine to bring back a true account. No one writing today catches the detail of life with such stunning accuracy."
Empire Falls, Russo's fifth novel, reprises the bluecollar world of his earlier books, this time set in a dying mill town in Maine rather than upstate New York. The title comes from the name of the town in the novel, but also resonates with the larger theme of dissolution. The river that flows through Empire Falls is central to the book's imagery. The patriarch of the powerful Whiting clan, owners of the now defunct textile mill that was the town's primary industry, tried in vain to change the course of that river, just as the protagonist of the novel, Miles Roby, tries to change the course of his own life. Years earlier, Miles left behind a college education and possible career as a professor to return home to care for his ailing mother. Taking a perpetual lease on the Empire Grill from Mrs. Whiting, last of that family, he remained in the town, married a woman he did not love, and became stuck in a numbing life, yet he has never lost his essential decency.
Miles's one hope is that his teenage daughter, Tick, will escape Empire Falls, as he was intended to. The book is also told from Tick's point of view in present-tense chapters that chronicle her growing frustration at the adult world and "it's essential dishonesty," as Russo writes. Tick's only close friend is a silent loner at school who is full of a rage that is ready to boil over. Miles's wife has meanwhile run off with the local fitness center owner and become an aerobics instructor; his father—always cadging beer money—is attempting to get the local priest to fund a trip to Key West. Mrs. Whiting, too, tries to control Miles, and there is a secret at the heart of her manipulations that bespeaks some deep connection between the Robys and Whitings. The rest of the community—a rich gathering of malcontents and regular folks—gathers daily at the Grill, sipping weak coffee and hoping things will get better before they get worse.
Critical reception to Russo's Empire Falls was overwhelmingly positive. "Russo is brave enough to conceive a large ambition but too smart to overreach," wrote A.O. Scott in the New York Times Book Review. "His sympathy for weakness and self-deception … does not rule out stern satiric judgment." Scott further praised Russo's "unerring" command of his story, calling him "one of the best novelists around." Janet Maslin, reviewing the novel in the New York Times, felt it was a "rich, humorous, elegantly constructed novel" and Russo's "most seductive book thus far." For Joanne Wilkinson, writing in Booklist, Empire Falls is a "warmhearted novel of sweeping scope," and one that balances "irreverent, mocking humor with unending empathy for … characters and their foibles." Similarly, a contributor for Publishers Weekly called it Russo's "biggest, boldest novel yet." The same reviewer concluded, "When it comes to evoking the cherished hopes and dreams of ordinary people, Russo is unsurpassed." "Empire Falls is dense in the best sense of the word," declared Bruce Fretts in Entertainment Weekly, further noting that with this "deeply ambitious book, Richard Russo has found new life as a writer."
In his 2002 publication, The Whore's Child and Other Stories, Russo presents his first foray into short fiction, seven tales that are in the main, according to Booklist writer Wilkinson, "considerably harder-edged and bleaker than his novels." Of these stories, three feature literature professors, as Russo himself was until he retired from teaching to write full time in the late 1990s. Only two deal with the same blue-collar world that his novels explore. The title story deals with a Belgian nun who takes a creative writing class, bares her soul in a steamy memoir, and then is discomfited when her work is reinterpreted by the class. "Joy Ride" tells the story of a mother fleeing from her husband with her teenage son in tow; "Poison" is about the reunion of a pair of fifty-something writers; "The Farther You Go" presents an oddly sympathetic abusive husband; and a cinematographer confronts the painter who was his late wife's lover in "Monhegan Light." As Rand Richards Cooper noted in the New York Times Book Review, the collection "abjures Russo's typical working-class settings and protagonists in favor of professors and writers caught in the drift of middle age, worried about illness and physical decline and experiencing deep ambivalence about marriage."
Critical praise met this new turn in Russo's writing career. Wilkinson felt that, despite the "darkness of his themes, all of the stories are told with great authority and near flawless technique." Maslin, writing in the New York Times, noted that the title story presents an "astonishing examination of the writing process," and that in all of the tales, Russo proves himself to be "the architect of stories you can't put down." A contributor for Kirkus Reviews found "Joy Ride" to be a "wonderful distillation of Russo's gifts for crystal-clear narration, subtle character portrayal, and irrepressible humor, and is capped by a tonally perfect bittersweet conclusion." Francine Prose called Russo's stories "well-crafted and deftly plotted" in People. Summing up the impact of this debut short story collection, Book's James Schiff asserted that the book "provides a wealth of delights and rewards from an author who's surely hitting full stride," while a reviewer for Publishers Weekly concluded that the book "is a winner."
"It's no secret that in my books I'm trying to make the comic and the serious rub up against each other just as closely and uncomfortably as I can," Russo told Alden Mudge in a Book Page online interview. "My books are elegiac in the sense that they're odes to a nation that even I sometimes think may not exist anymore except in my memory and my imagination. I find that by ignoring a lot of American culture you can write more interesting stories…. I just pray for continued good health, because I've got other stories to tell."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Russo, Richard, Empire Falls, Knopf (New York, NY), 2001.
American Spectator, December, 1993, p. 30.
Antioch Review, winter, 1994, p. 173.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 24, 1997, p. L12.
Atlantic Monthly, June, 2001, James Marcus, review of Empire Falls, p. 104.
Book, July, 2001, Don McLeese, review of Empire Falls, p. 63; July-August, 2002, James Schiff, review of The Whore's Child and Other Stories, p. 76.
Booklist, September 15, 1986, p. 103; May 15, 1993, p. 1676; March 15, 1994, p. 1350; May 15, 1997, p. 1541; January 1, 1998, p. 835; April 1, 2001, Joanne Wilkinson, review of Empire Falls, p. 1429; May 1, 2002, Joanne Wilkinson, review of The Whore's Child and Other Stories, p. 1444.
Books, July, 1993, James Schiff, review of The Whore's Child and Other Stories, p. 17.
Boston Globe, June 27, 1993, p. 94; January 26, 1995, p. 49.
Chicago Tribune, February 19, 1995, Section 5, p. 1.
Christian Century, March 8, 1995, p. 259.
Christian Science Monitor, October 6, 1997, Ron Charles, review of Straight Man, p. 14.
Chronicle of Higher Education, August 8, 1997, p. B8.
Commonweal, February 24, 1995, p. 54.
Economist, May 26, 2001, review of Empire Falls, p. 8.
Entertainment Weekly, June 25, 1993, p. 99; June 24, 1994, p. 99; July 18, 1997, p. 79; May 18, 2001, Bruce Fretts, "Maine Attraction," p. 72.
Esquire, June, 2001, Tom Bissell, review of Empire Falls, p. 42.
Hollywood Reporter, November 5, 2001, Zorianna Kit, "Benton to Helm Russo's 'Falls' at Stone Village," p. 3.
Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 1986, p. 1059; September 1, 1988, p. 1271; April 1, 1993, p. 404; May 15, 2002, review of The Whore's Child and Other Stories, p. 695.
Library Journal, November 15, 1988, p. 86; April 15, 1993, p. 128; April 15, 1994, p. 140; June 15, 1997, p. 99;October 1, 1997, p. 147; July, 2001, David W. Henderson, review of Empire Falls, p. 126.
Listener, March 30, 1989, p. 27.
National Catholic Reporter, November 19, 1993, p. 31;
January 20, 1995, p. 30; September 26, 1997, p. 33.
National Review, December 31, 1994, p. 62; April 6, 1998, p. 58.
New Republic, March 30, 1998, p. 26.
New Statesman, July 30, 1993, p. 39.
New York, November 21, 1988, p. 132; May 31, 1993, p. 60; January 16, 1995, p. 56.
New Yorker, February 6, 1989, p. 106; July 19, 1993, p. 87; August 18, 1997, p. 71.
New York Times, October 15, 1986, Michiko Kakutani, review of Mohawk, p. 23; November 2, 1988, Michiko Kakutani, review of The Risk Pool; May 10, 2001, Janet Maslin, review of Empire Falls, p. E9; July 8, 2002, Janet Maslin, review of The Whore's Child and Other Stories, p. E8.
New York Times Book Review, October 12, 1986, p. 28; December 18, 1988, Jack Sullivan, review of The Risk Pool, p. 14; November 26, 1989, p. 34; June 20, 1993, p. 13; May 8, 1994, p. 24; July 6, 1997, Tom De Haven, review of Straight Man, p. 10; June 24, 2001, A.O. Scott, "Townies," p. 8; July 14, 2002, Rand Richards Cooper, review of The Whore's Child and Other Stories, p. 10.
Observer, March 12, 1989, p. 45.
People, August 11, 1997, p. 40; May 21, 2001, Erica Sanders, review of Empire Falls, p. 51; July 22, 2002, Francine Prose, review of The Whore's Child and Other Stories, p. 35.
Publishers Weekly, August 8, 1986, p. 66; September 16, 1988, p. 62; January 6, 1989, p. 50; October 6, 1989, p. 96; March 29, 1993, p. 34; June 7, 1993, Sybil Steinberg, interview with Richard Russo, pp. 43-44; November 1, 1993, p. 47; April 11, 1994, p. 62; September 5, 1994, p. 33; May 12, 1997, p. 56; July 7, 1997, p. 32; April 9, 2001, review of Empire Falls, p. 48; April 29, 2002, "A Pulitzer Prize Windfall," p. 20; May 20, 2002, review of The Whore's Child and Other Stories, p. 44.
Rolling Stone, March, 1997, p. 74.
Time, May 31, 1993, p. 66; July 14, 1997, p. 84.
Times Educational Supplement, September 3, 1993, p. 22.
Times Literary Supplement, March 6, 1987, David Montrose, review of Mohawk, p. 246; June 9, 1989, p. 634; July 2, 1993, p. 23.
Tribune Books (Chicago), October 12, 1986, p. 5; October 30, 1988, Hilma Wolitzer, review of The Risk Pool, p. 1; May 30, 1993, p. 1; December 5, 1993, p. 1; July 31, 1994, p. 2; August 3, 1997, p. 3.
USA Today, February 2, 1995, p. D4; July 3, 1997, p. D6.
Washington Post Book World, November 27, 1988, p. 7; December 24, 1989, p. 12; June 6, 1993, p. 8; July 17, 1994, p. 12; July 20, 1997, p. 3.
World and I, October, 2001, Edward Hower, "SmallTown Dreams," p. 243.
Book Page, http://www.bookpage.com/ (May, 2001), Alden Mudge, "Richard Russo Renders Timely Portrait of American Life."
Identity Theory, http://www.identitytheory.com/ (August 13, 2002), Robert Birnbaum, "Interview: Richard Russo."
New York State Writers Institute, http://www.albany.edu/ (August 13, 2002), "Richard Russo."
Powell's.com Interviews, http://www.powells.com/ (June 6, 2001), Dave Weich, "Richard Russo's Working Arrangements."