Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool is set in North Bath, a small, struggling town in upstate New York. The town is populated by a host of quirky characters, the most prominent being 60-year old Donald Sullivan (“Sully”) who hobbles around town with a bad knee and who has an uncanny knack for finding trouble.
In this down-and-out setting, Russo creates a large cast of interesting characters, each of whom is fully fleshed out, unique, thoroughly believable, and depicted with meticulous precision. This is particularly true of Sully who emerges as a larger-than-life character, riddled with flaws and yet capable of displaying magnanimous concern and compassion toward the elderly and the weak. Whether you hate to love him or love to hate him, you can never ignore him. Every eye focuses on Sully with his biting wit and bungling antics the minute he enters a room.
Sully rents an upstairs apartment from 80-year old Mrs. Beryl Peoples, his 8th grade English teacher. Beryl, with her biting sarcasm, is an absolute delight. She conducts regular conversations with her husband who has been dead for over 20 years. She also converses with “Driver Ed,” an African mask, whose advice conflicts with that of her husband. Sully and Mrs. Peoples enjoy a wonderful relationship. She confides in him, tolerates his idiosyncrasies as he tolerates hers, and is more comfortable talking to him than to her own son.
If Sully has an outstanding quality, it is his ability to garner a stubborn loyalty from people who should have abandoned him long ago—his one-legged lawyer who refuses to give up on him even though he has never been paid; his best friend, Rub, who tolerates his constant ribbing; his on-again, off-again employer, Carl; his lover of twenty years who is married to another man; and his estranged son whom he had virtually abandoned throughout his childhood. And that’s the thing about Sully. He is incorrigible, stubborn, proud, fiercely independent, self-destructive, a constant joker, careless, forgetful, irresponsible, generous to a fault, a wise-cracking smart mouth, and completely and utterly lovable.
Russo’s talent lies in portraying believable characters whose banter is laced with verbal jousting and laugh out loud humor and wit. These colorful inhabitants of Bath are frequently resentful, sometimes mean, sometimes loving, but always very realistic. Their diction, speech patterns, and phrases sound genuine and consistent with their personalities.
Russo depicts the foibles of dysfunctional people in a small, economically depressed community with compassion and sensitivity. The only criticism to be made of the novel—and it is a minor one, at that—is the occurrence of a few too many flashbacks and digressions. But it is a testament to Russo’s talent as a writer that we come to know his characters well, recognize their eccentricities, laugh at their antics, feel their disappointments, become invested in their lives, and love them in spite of—or because of—their very human flaws and frailties. Should they step off the page, they would do so fully formed, warts and all, aiming jabs at each other while spouting dialogue that is deliciously real.
Highly recommended for its skillful characterization threaded with compassion and humor.