The novels of Richard Russo circle and descend upon upstate New York dissipation like some Google Maps drone that has been programmed to survey the carrion of formerly dynamic industrial burgs. Occasionally, for a breather, he may stray into comparable terrain in Maine, Pennsylvania, or Cape Cod, but he invariably doubles back for one more reckoning with the remains of his own Rust Belt youth.
In “Everybody’s Fool,” the former Gloversville, N.Y., homeboy takes us on a buoyantly unsentimental journey back to the fictionalized community of North Bath, whose withered streets provided the prototypical setting for his 1993 novel “Nobody’s Fool.” North Bath’s signature mineral springs had run dry decades before the events of that book, and attempts to rebrand the town with a theme park no one needed and mill-building condo conversions no one could afford would flame out like wet firecrackers. Over the intervening 10 years, this conservative, lily-white community would enter “a golden age of self-loathing,” fueled by a longstanding sense of inferiority to its happening neighbor, Schuyler Springs, with its university buzz, gay gentrification, and NPR affiliate.
The sad-sack embodiment of North Bath’s loser streak is its terminally self-doubting chief of police, Douglas Raymer, who, in the climactic clinch of “Nobody’s Fool,” was punched out by its memorably dyspeptic anti-hero, 60-year-old construction worker-cum-barfly Donald “Sully” Sullivan, and then humiliated before his assaulter by the town judge for being loose on the trigger. “Clearly,” as is observed in this irresistible sequel, “Judge Flatt considered him a fool, which left him no choice but to become one.”
In an unexpected gesture of authorial divinity that proves inspired, Russo elevates the hapless Raymer from his former servitude as comic walk-on to richly realized co-protagonist. Raymer’s midlife existential angst is balanced against the late-life regret of his longtime nemesis, a diminished (if still robustly amoral) Sully, who at 70 has been reduced to shuttling elderly widows about town in his dog-pee-scented truck: “After all, cabs cost money, whereas he could be paid in banana bread.”
The ascendant role of the can’t-get-no-respect Raymer seems particularly apt at a moment when America’s police have come under fire; pertinently, a new racial consciousness informs this updated portrait of the largely white-complexioned North Bath, albeit with a distinctly Russoesque hopefulness and eye for the nuances of human relationships.
Like so many sparring partners, Raymer and Sully share more in common than they would care to admit, including a kindred connection to the now-deceased Miss Beryl, the acerbic, straight-shooting schoolteacher who, along with Sully, was the other energizing bunny of “Nobody’s Fool.” Ascetic to the point of self-punishment, the two men dwell stubbornly below their means: Raymer in a fleabag apartment complex, the Morrison Arms (known around town as the “Moribund Arms’’), Sully in a trailer, despite having inherited Miss Beryl’s sprawling Main Street manse. And they are both, beneath the bluster, closet wusses. In his youth, Raymer could never get past the first chapter of “Great Expectations” because it terrified him so.
As in Dickens’s classic, Russo’s novel opens in a cemetery, with the funeral of the persnickety judge whose “scrotum-shrinking judicial gaze of disapproval” once cut Raymer to the quick. The spectre of mortality is very much at the core of “Everybody’s Fool.” As the hard-living Sully digests a grim heart diagnosis, Raymer wrestles with the discovery that his wife Becka, in the months prior to her tumbling down the stairs to her death, was carrying on with another man.
The most damning evidence of Becka’s betrayal, a garage-door opener, goes hilariously missing in the novel’s early pages. Raymer’s obsessive resolve to recover the lost device and reveal the identity of her lover provides the screwball motor for Russo’s intricately populated portrait of North Bath, a town whose flaky out-of-touchness is epitomized by a dementia-plagued mayor’s wife who carries on imaginary conversations over a detached telephone receiver that she hauls about in her bag.
The indignities of being a cuckolded police chief for an arguably cuckoo constituency are compounded when a cobra that has been illegally lodged at Moribund Arms escapes. There are a number of snakes at large in “Everybody’s Fool,” most of whom take the human shape of sociopathic ex-cons or car-scratching lowlifes. Typically, Russo favors action and citrus-tart dialogue over physical description. But for a few snapshot images of North Bath’s many corpulent residents, the novel’s most vivid passages capture characters facing down chaos: wriggling off a crumbling porch roof, stranded on a tree limb, trapped in the dark with a reptile.
Some complain that Russo errs on the side of overplotting, and personally I wouldn’t have minded if a late-blooming back story involving the mayor and his wife went missing along with that garage-door opener. For Russo’s acolytes, however, too much of a muchness is part of the lure. You hold his books to your heart even when, like North Bath’s more over-indulgent citizens, they are a bit beefier than they really ought to be.
By Richard Russo
Knopf, 477 pp., $27.95
Jan Stuart is the author of “The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece.’’