Everybody’s Fool, by Richard Russo

This 2016 novel reads as if Russo has fallen in love with his characters of Nobody’s Fool, as well as being fascinated by the down-at-the-heels town of North Bath that he has created in upper New York State. And without any overall plan, has decided to re-apply his writing skills to that town and to explore the subsequent lives of these same characters. The result is a serious novel that cares deeply about its creations, but it does seems unfocused, as it follows these citizens around without an apparent purpose in doing so. And as a result, seems simply to create a world that is alive in the author’s mind, and which he is skilled enough to bring alive also to the reader.

And so we follow the parallel adventures of four male residents who talk to each other but whose lives do not affect each other, and who are not dependent on one another. We simply move from one character’s life to the next. These characters are Sully Sullivan, the main character from the earlier novel about North Bath, whose health is now threatened by a weak heart; Doug Raymer, the town’s chief of police, who is the most prominent character in this novel and who seeks to learn the identity of the man who was his wife’s lover before she died; Gus Moynihan, the North Bath mayor, who also has spousal problems but is less significant; and Carl Roebuck, the town entrepreneur, who never achieves the business success he seeks and also fades out at the end of this novel.

Each of these characters sees himself as failing to live up to his potential, just as their town has failed economically to keep up with its wealthy neighbor, Schuyler Springs. However, Russo helps the reader to identify with each of these characters, despite their human weaknesses, as it is clear that each of them is dealing with a personal trait or a family connection that hinders their search for happiness and fulfillment.

These four main characters bring substance to this novel, nevertheless, and give depth to this town. But it is other characters, less substantial, who drive the action of this novel. The most prominent is Charice Bond, a highly efficient black woman who is the aide to police chief Raymer, and with whom he has an emotional connection. There is also her unsettled brother, Jerome, with whom she has an even closer emotional connection; Rub Squeers, a hapless town handyman who tries and fails to be Sully’s best friend; and Roy Purdy, the most significant, a violent man who beats up people, especially his ex-wife and his former mother-in-law, the latter because she has had a long affair with Sully.

One means of probing the interior of these characters, lending them literary substance, is the use of humor. The most obvious source is Dougie, an inner voice of Doug Raymer who needles him, sees his weaknesses, and also acts as his conscience. Unfortunately, this italicized voice is overdone, and becomes too obvious a means of revealing Raymer’s inner thoughts. It also prompts an absurd moment when Raymer becomes a hero by grabbing a deadly cobra and putting it back in a box. Yes, a cobra is loose in town in one of the novel’s major absurdities.

But not the only one. There is also grave robbing. It seems Raymer has found a garage opener in his dead wife’s car, and he goes around town pointing it at neighbor’s garages in order to learn whom she had an affair with. Except, he then falls into a grave, loses the opener, and it is buried behind him. Voila, a grave robber. There is also more humor behind other human foibles, foibles resulting in a collapsed wall or a stinking basement, all of which bring out the ignorance, the pettiness, and the contradictions in the town’s residents.

That is, much of the novel’s humor evolves from the futility that marks these characters. Raymer is an incompetent police chief. Sully has a bad heart, and refuses to acknowledge it. Moynihan is a failure as a mayor, and Roebuck as a businessman. And handyman Rub is the most incompetent of all.

The casual exchanges among these men reflect the shallowness of their character, which, in turn, betrays why this town is a failure compared to Schuyler Springs. But these exchanges also reveal Russo’s sympathy for them, along with their incompetence; which, in turn, keeps the reader involved in their escapades and in this novel. And which also reflects the work’s facetious title, as it suggests the incompetence of everyone, especially in its focus on Chief Raymer.

The major disappointment I have in this novel is its looseness, its moving simply from the foibles of one character to those of another. The result is the portrait of a town and its failures, and yet not a commentary on the reasons behind those failures. For it likes its characters too much. That is, Russo does. Only the violent Roy is condemned. (Indeed, Russo says he took a shower after writing each of Roy’s chapters.)

A final disappointment is the ending, which brings peace, satisfaction, or happiness to these incompetent characters. It is too arbitrary for me, reflecting too much of the author’s sympathy for these people he has created. More appropriate for this town would have been some irony that continues the frustrations confronting these basically incompetent citizens.

As Russo approaches the end of his distinguished career, it is heartening to see him again take a serious approach to small town life. Perhaps the humor is intended to take the edge off the novel’s seriousness, and therefore attract more readers. I will accept that. I just wish the characters could have been more involved with each other, instead of living their own separate lives with their own separate problems. Perhaps such complexity is too much to handle for an author in the later stages of his career. Which does make one wonder how complex, how probing, future Russo novels will be. (November, 2017)

A Painted House, by John Grisham

This 2001 work is a different Grisham novel, not a thriller, not one centered on the law. And this is precisely why I was drawn to it. It is the story of a seven-year old boy, Luke Chandler, who lives with his family in the cotton fields of Arkansas. Luke narrates the struggles of this farm family—presumably based on Grisham’s own youthful origins—as his parents and grandparents try to survive their hardscrabble life against a context of human evil and natural disaster.

The story encompasses just a few months in the fall, but they are key months to these farmers, since this is when the cotton is harvested. It is also when a family learns whether it has made a profit or sunk deeper into debt. But a family cannot harvest its cotton alone, and so the Chandlers hire migrant Mexicans, who come north to make money, as well as poor people from nearby hill country. This year, it is the Spruill family, who leave their Ozark home to earn money.

The arrival of these cotton pickers adds drama to Luke’s life. He takes his own family for granted—that is, his grandparents, Pappy and Gran, and his father and mother. He also has a young uncle, Ricky, off fighting in Korea. Since he has no one his own age to relate to, Luke regards the absent Ricky as just an older brother, and, like the whole family, yearns for him to come home. Luke is also taken with pretty girls, reflecting still more awareness of the world, and he is fascinated by teenager Tally Spruill. Although he is too young for it to be a sexual attraction, he is not too young not to be disappointed by her own subsequent betrayal of their friendship.

There is continual drama in this novel, but it stems from a series of interesting events rather than one dramatic development that grows more and more complex. There is the tension of picking the cotton on long hot days, and wondering what price one will get when one takes it into town. There is tension between the Mexican group and the Spruills, but also within each grouping, a tension that produces a brutal murder and a seduction and elopement. Then comes, separately, the tension of a birth everyone wants to conceal from town gossip. There is also tension, as the hot sun is replaced by rain, and then by a flooding that threatens the harvest. For without a full harvest, of course, the family finances will flounder.

Amid all this drama, there are also quieter moments that lend substance to narrator Luke and to his family. Luke is a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, and dreams of playing for them one day, just as other children dream of playing for their favorite team. Trips to town for either supplies or entertainment also lend variety and moments of escape. Finally, the unity of the family, and its idealism, is represented by the painting of the family farmhouse—thus bringing more continuity to this work, as well as the dreams that lurk within these struggling farmers.

What we have here is an old story, an innocent boy’s exposure to the harsh world of reality, a reality brought by the evil in men as well as by the reality of Mother Nature. It is also a reality that the boy Luke learns to accept, indeed is forced to accept. Which means that the sad and moving ending to this novel is colored by a vision of hope. And so, as life brings change, one senses that Luke and this family will survive.

One does wonder, however, if this was too much a positive ending, or a superficial ending, for literary critics. For, when published, this work did not receive many favorable reviews. It was welcomed as a literary attempt, but was faulted for its shallowness. It was criticized frequently for its lack of black characters and any racial tension. But that, clearly, was not what Grisham wanted to write about. He wanted to portray the difficult life of cotton farmers, and how they fought nature and worked around another kind of social tension—the tension between the middle-class and the poor.

In sum, these critics wanted Grisham to write another kind of novel. And so, when they addressed the novel he did write, they labeled it superficial. The family is also called stereotypical. Pappy’s leadership is unchallenged. Gran practices folk medicine and makes great biscuits. And mother has her vegetable garden. The social context is shallow, critics wrote, because there are no blacks. And the plotting is weak, they also wrote. They did not acknowledge that farming life itself is slow, since it follows the slow processes of nature—and one deals with an environment in which one must fight fatigue, the hot sun, and tumultuous rainstorms.

These critics are also looking for an adult world, not the world of a seven-year-old boy. This precocious boy, who is conveniently able to eavesdrop on the conversations behind adult decisions, is for them either too precocious or not precocious enough. Or old enough. But it is the boy’s innocence that Grisham also wishes to convey. And how that innocence slowly accommodates itself to the reality of cotton farming.

There are moments of high drama, of course. There is a beating the entire town sees. And the issue of how the perpetrator should be punished. There is also a brutal murder that Luke witnesses. Should he report it, after the killer threatens to kill his mother if he squeals? This is another interesting moral issue that the novel only touches upon. And there is the disappearance of Tally, and how this disillusions Luke, raising another moral issue. But such drama comes from isolated moments, a drama that has in common two alienated characters, two representations of evil, but offers no inevitable connection in which each act leads inevitably to the next.

Grisham’s subject, to sum up, emphasizes social tension, but it has nothing to do with race. One critic points out that blacks represented only three percent of the population of the county in which the real Black Oak, where this novel is set, is located. One may surmise, indeed, that Grisham chose this town for precisely that reason.

One may also conclude that Grisham has written here a novel of youth and innocence that earns him a certain literary status. It is not a great novel, but it is a worthwhile one. Indeed, here is a wish that he would more often leave the commercial world of trial lawyers and write more novels like this one. (November, 2017)

Gone the Dreams and Dancing, by Douglas C. Jones

I have long been a fan of Douglas Jones, not least because I have been impressed by his capture of the Indian experience, beginning with his tales of George Armstrong Custer and Sitting Bull. Those two novels worked because he imaginatively recreated the Indian world in tension with the white man’s world. Here, however, as the title suggests, he tells a different story, that of the proud Indians’ painful adjustment, after their defeat, to the white man’s culture.

This 1984 novel is beautifully written, as are all his works, and is a major reason I have long chosen to read Jones. But this novel is less successful in novelistic terms. Not, however, because it is told from the viewpoint of a white man, Liverpool (Liver) Morgan, a Welshman. He is a fine man, as well as an understanding spokesman for the author; and we understand why others trust him and his fairness, especially from his memories of the Civil War as a Confederate soldier, as well as his memories of his Welsh parents. These are often poetic interludes that do interrupt his current narrative with the Indians, but also demonstrate Jones’ imaginative probing into the depths of his character.

Liver first encounters the Indian leader, Kwahadi, as the chief leads his Comanche tribe peacefully onto the land the white man has reserved for them. The novel then takes us through a series of events that both bring Liver closer to Kwahadi and demonstrate the slow absorption of these Comanches into the white man’s ways. But as the Kirkus review sums up, it is a rich “if relatively undramatic, Jones historical novel.”

Kwahadi, the Indian chief, becomes Jones’ pathway into illustrating how the Indians have had to abandon two mainstays of their culture when they pledged themselves to a peaceful life. For that decision has denied its young men important elements of their warrior culture. That is, they no longer go into battle against other tribes; and, second, the buffalo, whom they eagerly pursued as a source of food and clothing, have vanished. And so, to enable these Indians to hold onto one key symbol of their way of life, Liver helps the Comanche leader retrieve a sacred lance that is symbolic of their warrior culture. Then, more practically, he helps the tribe obtain both the horses they need to explore the world beyond their reservation and the cattle they need to feed themselves.

Each of these steps illustrates a need these Indians have as they adjust to their new world. But there is no dramatic unity to these events. There are simply a series of problems Liver helps to solve, and by doing so helps slowly to develop his relationship with Kwahadi and his people. Moreover, that relationship grows quite personal, as Liver soon acts as a successful go-between for a young white army contractor who wishes to marry one of Kwahadi’s daughters.

And this relationship becomes even more personal, when Kwahadi, the son of a white woman who was kidnapped by the Indians and then recaptured a generation later, yearns for the mother he has lost. And because he trusts Liver, who knows the white man’s world, he asks Liver to find what happened to his white mother, and whether or not she is still alive. And this mission carries Liver through much of the remaining novel. Indeed, to re-enforce his trust, Kwahadi directs another Indian to protect Liver from a white man’s ambush. And, finally, the chief offers Liver, a widower, an Indian woman as a wife—to cure a loneliness he sees in the white man—and Liver agrees.

The final integration of the Indians comes with a trip to Ft. Worth, where Kwahadi and his Indian friends are to be honored. But it also ends with a tragedy, as well as with Liver fulfilling the mission that Kwahadi gave him, to discover the fate of the Indian’s wife. And so the conclusion of these two events helps to bring this work itself to an emotional close.

Except, there is an Epilogue, which suggests that Liver and Kwahadi were real people. It is not clear if this is true or an attempt to create verisimilitude. But I do note that Jones’ most successful early novels were built around historical events that really happened, and onto which he grafted his marvelous imaginative powers, powers that brought him inside the head of both Indians and white men. Did he need that verisimilitude again to give more substance to this work of fiction?

This novel did not receive the attention that reviewers gave his earlier work. Perhaps because it was not inspired by a specific moment in history. Instead, it presents the gradual assimilation of Indians into the white man’s culture. It may thus be appropriate to quote from my 2005 review of Jones’ novel Roman, that Jones “fails to offer a single, unified story that stretches itself into a greater complexity. Instead, he offers a picaresque series of adventures that offer no challenge to his hero, even as they immerse us into the daily activities of life on the range and in the towns, cities, and forts.”

Finding the fate of Kwahadi’s mother was not an easy task for Liver, but it was also not enough to tie this work together with any continuity. In part because it was achieved so easily. Liver knew the right person, who in turn knew the governor. One concludes that Jones is really committed here to the larger story, the assimilation of the Indians. He is less committed to the fate of his individual characters. Because this is the story about cultures rather than about individual people. The people merely illustrate the cultures.

This book has sat on my shelf for many years. I felt no urgency to read it, perhaps reflecting the reviewers’ lack of interest when this novel was published. But I am happy I finally picked it up. And it deserved to be published. For it covers an important element of America’s Western history. And we should be grateful that Jones decided to write this story of these two cultures that were so important to our country’s past. (November, 2017)