I’m a bit hesitant to write about Richard Russo for some semi-obscure professional reason, but I also want to keep track of my impressions upon reading his new book, which is essentially the point of this sleepy, backwater blog. As always, I like to look at the big picture and my general overall impressions of a writer while I go along and pick out some of the intriguing specifics of one of their works. The Russo situation seems a bit complicated at the moment, but it can all be worked out.
The big thing that leads me to Russo right now is that he’s a Yates man. He wrote the introduction to the Collected Stories, the publication of which in 2001 was a major step in the Yates renaissance, although I completely missed it myself at the time. I have read that intro a couple of times now and I might do it again, looking this time for more specifics of the chronology of Russo’s interactions with and reading of Yates. Along with Russo, Richard Ford wrote the introduction to the 2000 reprint of Revolutionary Road, and Richard Price more recently has written the intro to the new Everyman collection of Rev Road, Easter Parade and 11 Kinds of Loneliness, which seems to be the perfectly distilled version of Yates’s major works. I’m noticing for the first time, as you must have by now, that there are a whole lot of dudes named Richard here. Beyond that oddity, however, Russo, Ford, and Price are a hefty trio of writers from the last two decades. Ford, I think, makes the case most clearly that Yates was the writer’s writer, and one of the questions I’m obviously interested in is the effect of Yates on these and other writers. But we can leave that alone for now, despite its juiciness as a topic for scholars of later 20th century literature.
It would be interesting to see a new essay by Russo, discussing his engagement with Yates and giving us more details. But he has done something much better, adapting three major Yates stories into a screenplay that is essentially a stunning and complex biographical portrait of Yates. That’s where the tricky professional side of Russo consideration comes in, and I’ll reluctantly pass it by for the moment.
So all of a sudden I felt like I had some catching up to do. It wasn’t as bad as it would have been with Ford or Price, neither of whom I have ever really read. A while ago, however, I read Russo’s first books and liked them very much. In these last few weeks of Russo time I’ve tried to guess just what I’ve read and where I left off, and I think I only read his first two books, Mohawk and Risk Pool, and never read Nobody’s Fool. So that leaves a fair amount of good reading to be done, if I want to stick to Russo for a bit.
I find it interesting that I lack the inclination to use my standard approach in looking at Russo’s work. Normally I would have an entry book, and then identify the writer’s generally acclaimed two or three best books. Once that part is covered, the heart of things, you’re in a position to stray from the beaten path, as it were, and you’ll find what you will. My attitude towards Russo right now seems different, and perhaps the reason is because I read those early books a long time ago now. Now I have a new entry book, his new novel That Old Cape Magic, but I’m aware that I’m leaping right over the heart of his successful and distinguished career.
It’s worth wondering if the writer of Cape Magic is recognizable as the author of Mohawk, as I remember it. The answer is a qualified yes. Again, it feels like I’m missing the core, and passed by something substantial. If Mohawk and The Risk Pool were the work of a rising author, pressing forward on a quest to describe his past, his roots, his hometown and the social culture that shaped him, along with his family, Cape Magic is a piece of work from the other, declining side. It’s a story that looks at a later stage of “middle life,” a post-peak rendering.
This is obvious, of course, in the story, but it’s more interesting to start by looking at the style. Pre-peak books, in this formula, are marked by a certain density, the effort to discover meaning and to push oneself as far and as deep into the heart of things as possible. The goal is either reconciliation and redemption, or devastation, the choice of Yates. Perhaps it’s all a sequence, and if a novelist peaks with a story of reconciliation, he or she will face a mellow downwards glide from there. Yates, dark and honest, may have peaked with Rev Road, then struggled to return to the same wasteland, until Easter Parade shows the long term, slow-motion progress of desperation and homelessness. But that’s the dark version. Russo seems to have a different orientation. There’s plenty of honesty and clarity in his style, and there’s anxiety and a genuine discomfort expressed by his protagonist, but the note of reconciliation persists and eventually wins out. We’re not doomed, constantly sowing the seeds of self-destruction, as in Yates. There’s a bit of hope for some of us, even if we stumble around as benighted, bumbling assholes the better part of the time. And that, folks, is what we call comedy. The tiniest grace note in the style makes it funny, and much less sad, even though the vision, worldview, and self-reflection is relatively unsparing. Perhaps this is a way of saying that Russo, in this book and at this stage of his life and career, is an old pro and he makes it look easy. And perhaps becuase of that we think slightly less of his accomplishemnt; that a book like this is a nice glimpse of a time of life and a certain stage, but it’s a minor, not a major work. That’s okay, I suppose, but we need to remember that these things are more difficult than they appear, and the type of ease and flow that we critique and suspect is hard-earned.
On to the story, belatedly. We like to write stories about our parents, one way or another, and Russo makes some changes in his standard approach (as far as i know) and hits a new spot, a new stage in his long term examination of reconcilation . The main change to the “standard approach” is that our hero’s parents are academics, which creates a different dynamic. The new stage is that his parents are dead and dying, and the book, in the end, is about how parents can overwhelm our consciousness and lives even when they’re not present, and what can happen to that present-absence when they’re dead. It’s an examination of how death can make parental presence even stronger in our consciousness for a time, and absence can be even more challenging somehow.
Dealing with troublesome paents is familiar enough and it certainly must be one of Russo’s primary themes, so there’s not so much to say about it, but the part I find intriguing is how the hero’s parents are academics. This creates snobbery and comedy, and it leaves the hero confused. I wonder about the intent here, and if Russo is peering into the future as he switches things up. Writers are usually better educated than their parents. They become conscious and write about the ways in which their parents worked through their own issues as they were raising them, and we see many stories about neglectful and misguided parenting. But what happens when a set of flawed, poorly-matched parents are highly conscious and educated and intellectual themselves? What happens if they are–gulp–like us?
It’s all the same, more or less, as it turns out Parents in conflict are the same, regardless of being well-read. They can be more judgmental and hard to please, which is a good cautionary note. The hero is comfortable enough in academia, having grown up in it, but he didn’t follow the normal academic path, and became a screenwriter. This part of the character was quite interesting to me, and Russo does a great job of capturing, almost nonchalantly, the frustrating, compromised lives of screenwriters, and living in Los Angeles, all of it in the hero’s past now. He was semi-successful at best, and he’s more of a teacher of screewriting than a screenwriter. It’s all a rich and subtle portrait of a complicated, beleaguered character, comfortable enough, with much to be thankful for, but stumbling through a set of late mid-life cirses. It never really gets easier.