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book review

In Richard Russo’s ‘Trajectory,’ pulling lives out of a spiral

Stuart Bradford for the boston globe

It’s brisk outside, the cusp of a Maine winter, and it’s dark in the garage, where Paula and her husband, Ray, sit in their car, not getting out. She hasn’t spoken since they left the restaurant after dinner with a friend, but she’s about to start talking now — a little angrily, though her emotion is rooted in worry, which is rooted in love. Because something needs to change.

“Being you, going about things the way you usually do, isn’t always a good thing,” she tells Ray.

“I should become somebody else?” he asks.

“Yes,” she says, and it isn’t the predictable answer.

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But the thought behind it — to redirect a life that has somehow gone off course — is the animating wish throughout Richard Russo’s “Trajectory,” a new collection of short fiction so rich and flavorsome that the temptation is to devour it all at once. I can’t in good conscience advise otherwise.

Russo, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for his novel “Empire Falls,” lives in Portland, Maine, and the pieces here — three stories and one novella — are peopled with New Englanders. Paula and Ray in “Intervention” are a couple in middle age facing a medical crisis that may spiral into disaster unless Ray gets over his ingrained aversion to claiming any privilege for himself. A real estate agent with a cancerous tumor in a difficult spot, he is repelled even by their loud, wealthy friend’s offer of an introduction to a doctor who might help.

That sounds like a terrible downer, but glumness isn’t what Russo has in mind. Even unfolding as it does in the middle of the recession, with the real estate market dried up and businesses starved for customers who in turn are starved for cash, “Intervention” percolates with mocking humor. It dips into despair, yet it is actually about the reanimation of hope gone dormant.

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Ray and his brother, Bill, grew up in a blue-collar world, the kind of milieu inhabited by many of the characters in Russo’s novels. But the works in this collection take the author elsewhere. “Horseman,” the opening story, unfolds on a New England college campus, where an English professor named Janet Moore has failed to learn the principal lesson that her own famous writing teacher once tried to pass on to her, back when she was the most technically accomplished student in her graduate program.

Cold intellect is not enough, he told her; true distinction comes when a writer is willing to be visible in her own work — and marrying the head with the heart isn’t always easy to do.

“This elusive thing . . . I won’t succeed until I find it?” she asked.

“Oh, you’ll succeed just fine,” he said. “You’ll just never be any good.”

She is succeeding just fine, except that she’s walled herself off emotionally from her husband, a kind man less talented than she is; their young son, whose unspecified illness makes her see him as damaged; her colleagues and students, who are targets of her contempt rather than objects of her sympathy.

Overall, then, not so fine. But in this cautionary tale, scared and selfish habits can be broken, and closed-down hearts cracked open.

In “Voice,” the graceful and surprising novella that comes next, a socially clumsy, recently retired Jane Austen scholar named Nate joins his older brother, Julian, on a group tour to Italy.

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Like other men in these stories, Nate and Julian have a fraught relationship and a history of competing for the same women. In Venice, where the group has traveled for the Biennale, the brothers’ antagonism fairly seethes. Nate’s goodwill overtures toward Julian are undermined by his own imagination, forever racing toward the worse possible scenario — and by his malfunctioning smartphone, which is making him question his sanity.

We know from the novella’s start that Nate, a chronic bachelor now in his upper 60s, has suffered a shameful, self-inflicted professional disgrace involving a student he calls “the Mauntz girl.” What takes a while to figure out is that, quick as he is to judge others harshly, he is absolutely caustic in assessing himself. He is also haunted by the conviction that he has lived the wrong life: that when he had a choice between academia and an occupation that made him joyous, he took the wrong path. He fears that his life hasn’t added up to much.

Yet with all this, “Voice” is ultimately Russo channeling Austen in a travelogue, and it’s wonderful stuff: two sisters, Evelyn and Renee, each with her distinctive charms; two suitors, one a ne’er-do-well (a recurring type in this collection), the other more appealing than he might seem. (Spoiler: It’s Nate.)

The collection finishes with “Milton and Marcus,” a clear-eyed, comic skewering of Hollywood rapacity, in which a Vermont writer named Ryan, whose fiction career has seen better days, is invited back into the movie game. Smart and a little jaded, he’s also broke. Off he goes to a movie star’s Wyoming mountaintop to chat about the script.

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Russo frets about the American culture of pointless acquisitiveness. He worries over the breathtaking privilege of the uber-wealthy. Yet he is no ascetic. The flip side of aversion is fascination.

Ryan makes his pilgrimage, he clocks the quotidian betrayals and easy deceit, and they revolt him. But maybe, just maybe, he wants to change his trajectory in that direction anyway.

TRAJECTORY

By Richard Russo

Knopf, 256 pp., $25.95


Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at laura.collinshughes @gmail.com.