In 1750, without warning or apparent reason, the mineral springs of the colonial resort town of Bath, New York, ran dry. A little more than two hundred years later, after numerous warnings and for too many reasons, Sully, the unluckiest man in this unlucky town, isn't doing too hot either. He's broke, out of a job, and the owner of a dead pickup truck. The good news? Sully has the dumbest man in North Bath as his devoted friend, a long-suffering, long-married woman who loves him, a forgiving eighty-year-old landlady who converses with her late husband, a spastic doberman as a watchdog, and the finest one-legged drunken Jewish lawyer this side of Albany. Now, if Sully could only banish his father's slyly grinning ghost and earn his own son's respect, he might just turn the whole damn thing around.
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.
I remember that while I was reading Empire Falls, there was a one-line accolade on the back of the book that stuck with me: Nobody does small town like Richard Russo. And surely that was the case with that particular novel. There is a great deal of that is in evidence here, too, in North Bath, a fictional, blue-collar town in upstate New York. But Nobody’s Fool is essentially Sully’s story – a n’er-do-well who, at sixty years old, remains one of the town’s unluckiest citizens, who has been doing the wrong thing triumphantly for fifty years. Sully rents a suite from Miss Beryl, his widowed and long since retired eighth grade teacher – she alone has genuine affection for Sully. Outside of Miss Beryl, Russo entertains readers with a host of secondary characters with whom Sully has at best dysfunctional relationships: his paramour Ruth, who is a married woman; his estranged son Peter; his persnickety, self-centered ex-wife Vera; his arrogant sometime employer Carl Roebuck; his mentally challenged, clingy friend Rub … and more.
A humourous, sometimes raucous, and always moving story, Nobody’s Fool embraces our human follies and triumphs. And while, truthfully, I tired of Sully’s childish, delinquent behaviour at 549 pages long, it’s impossible not to recommend Russo.
This is just my second book by Richard Russo, but already I can mark him as a favorite author. His writing speaks to me - I like how he tells a story where basically nothing much happens but the characters are so real that you feel you know them personally. That's how life happens - not so much in the big moments but in the small forgotten ones that help to define who we are.
This is mostly the story of Sully and the lives that intersect his, and what I love about Sully is that he knows how to be kind. And he doesn't take any shit. At first glance, Sully seems like a failure - he seems reckless and thoughtless in his decision making. But Sully is actually very thoughtful - he thinks things through and then goes ahead and does things his way even when he knows that it is not "the smartest thing". Is it better to be smart or to be genuine?
Sully lives with Miss Beryl (renting out her upstairs), mother of the selfish and greedy Clive Jr., widow of Clive Sr. Miss Beryl used to teach eight grade and she has taught and remembers most everyone in town. Miss Beryl is another very interesting and deeply conflicted character - she loves Sully better than her own son, who has an agenda that does not meet with Miss Beryl's approval. Miss Beryl knows that she cannot trust her own son, but she feels guilty about this knowledge.
I loved the thoughtful progression through Miss Beryl's and Sully's thoughts and actions as they navigate the course of their journey. Miss Beryl understands that Sully is a product of his abusive father's violent behavior. She understands his stubbornness even when she doesn't condone it, and she definitely understands that forgiveness is not always an option or even necessary for redemption. Why do people always want us to forgive what should never be forgiven? And why do they think we cannot have closure without it? Acceptance and forgiveness are not the same thing. I wanted to applaud Sully for refusing to forgive his father, who, after all, never even asked for forgiveness. I didn't think Sully should have to relinquish his anger or his hurt.
“To Ruth’s way of thinking, Sully’s unwillingness to forgive as the source of his own stubborn failures, and in the past she’d been capable of being very persuasive on this subject, would in fact have persuaded about anyone but Sully. Her failure to convince him was probably the best single explanation for why things never worked out between them. She made it clear he could not have them both - herself and his stubborn, fixed determination. For a while he’s allowed her to undermine it in subtle ways. Once they’d even visited Big Jim in his nursing home. 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."
This book is such a wonderful character study. Quiet and unassuming, it is packed full of humor and wit. Of charm and ugliness and truth. It spoke to me. Highly recommended and one I know I will reread. Thank you, Katie, for recommending this one.
While the contrast between the life he describes and my own was interesting enough, the real reason I love Russo is the complex, witty, and compassionate way he draws his characters. Although nothing much happens in this novel from a plot standpoint, I became so attached to the various personalities—particularly Sully, who is very much his own fool if nobody else’s—that I found myself more than a little sad to see it end. (Shouldn’t that be one way of defining great fiction?) This guy really is a wonderful writer.
This is the story, told primarily over Thanksgiving and Christmas, of a small town and the strange characters that inhabit it. The primary focus is on Sully, a hard-luck character that knows he has made his own bad times as well as good. He is fooling around with another man's wife (it seems everyone is fooling around with someone), he is trying to get disability while continuing to work odd jobs, and he has an ex-wife and an adult son– the former of which wishes to forget him and the latter who can't figure out how he feels about him. There is the promise of major development in the town that will help everyone. There is also the old lady who is Sully's landlady who seems to care more for Sully than her own son (the "rich" banker). There is the developer who fools around with everyone even though he is with the most beautiful woman in town. And there are even more characters.
You notice how my description of the story is more about the people than a story? That is because there really isn't a major story driving this narrative. That is not a bad thing. The multiple small, intertwined stories more than make up for the lack of big narrative.
And, yes they are interesting people, but I wonder. Are they real? Do people really act this way? Is this a part of what it is to grow up in a small town? I do not know. But, in spite of the reality Russo brings to the story, I still feel that reality is stretched – stretched enough that I am not completely immersed in the believability of the story.
As I say. This is a good book. The stories of the people propel the reader forward. But somehow the cumulative effect of all those small stories does not a big story make.
NOBODY'S FOOL seems to be a typical Russo novel. Incredibly vivid characters whom the reader comes to more deeply appreciate as the pages turn. And the occasional absolutely hilarious incident.
Highly recommended for all ages.
Russo’s Nobody’s Fool is one of my favourite contemporary American novels, and also a frequent reread of mine, but now that I come to review it, I can’t quite explain why I find it comforting and entertaining enough to keep returning to. Certainly, the dialogue is the companionable, joshing sort that keeps me grinning when I’m not spluttering with laughter, Russo’s description of the small town of Bath is delightful and imbues the place with a fading but unique character, and the characters themselves are as myriad and believable as any I’ve met on a page… but other books have accomplished this and been enjoyable, once only reads. I think the difference is that, with Nobody’s Fool, Russo has a achieved a network of relationships around Sully that keep him surrounded by – and rebounding off - a perfect mixture of affection, irritation, rivalry, negligent friendship, exasperated concern and even love. The plot is a gently meandering chart of Sully’s latest ‘stupid streak’ and how it affects his connections to the people in his life, and though it seems a subtle - almost trivial – limp forward, the end manages to leave the reader with a profound satisfaction.
The main character in Nobody's Fool, Sully, is a likable ne'er-do-well and the rest of the characters are interesting. I think that's the crux of my problem with this book, and I freely admit it may just be specific to me...... Jim Harrison wrote a collection of novellas and novels about a character called Brown Dog, a pseudo-Indian from Michigan's Upper Peninsula who is pretty much the same guy as Sully, only an order of magnitude funnier and more interesting. As I told my wife, I chuckled several times while reading about Sully, but Brown Dog will make a reader laugh out loud. That's hard to do with the written word..... I just couldn't get past the comparisons.
Anyway, it's probably just me but Nobody's Fool didn't cut it.