Monday, July 18, 2011

Books Yay!: Nobody's Fool, by Richard Russo

In my family, you go to elementary school, then you go to middle school, then you go to high school and then you go to college. There aren’t lofty decrees about it or anything, but that’s kind of how everyone assumes it will go. So far, not one of us has done this properly. I took nine years to finish my bachelor’s degree before jumping right into a Ph.D program, my brother tried a business major at a state school before dumping it for a sound engineering program (which was the exact right thing for him to do), and my sister has put college on hold to make what seems to be about eleventy billion dollars bartending while she figures out what, exactly, she would want a degree in, which I also think is super smart because college is a horrible drudgery when you’re not connecting with your program (see: nine years to finish bachelor’s degree). This whole “you will be going to college” business seems to be getting more and more common, and its rise is accompanied by sneering derision towards those who haven’t gone to college. This is, without mincing words, a dick move, and the attitude cheapens both the college and the no-college paths. College is meant to be something you do in pursuit of academic knowledge, not for business or the vague majors that colleges are selling these days. With everyone high on college as the source of all knowledge, academic or otherwise, we denigrate the careers and knowledge of those in non-academic disciplines who have the sense not to waste their time and money on degrees they don’t need or want.

What I like about Richard Russo is his ability to appreciate everyone for their quirky fucked-upped-ness, academic or no. The tension between the two worlds is ever-present in Nobody’s Fool, as the main character, Sully, works to deal with the demented sensibilities of the more “educated” powers that be around him. He’s a laid-back man who has made his life on his strength and on being able to help people, and in the latter half of his life, he’s searching for direction while being weighted down by his past. These shackles take the form of the decaying house he inherited from his father years ago and the reappearance of his son, a failing academic being unceremoniously booted from academe after failing to get tenure. Nobody’s Fool is a celebration of the everyman and the rich wisdom available to him.

Much like Empire Falls, another favorite Russo book of mine, Nobody’s Fool features a wonderful array of small town characters who bear up and wear down Sully’s spirits. His sometimes-boss is an overbearing jerk who continually belittles him, he has a faltering flirtation with several of the local ladies, and his landlady is an older woman who talks to her dead husband. I could outline the plot for you, but as with so much of Russo’s writing, the specifics of the plot – though hysterical and sweet – are less important than the one essential truth at its core: that life grants wishes and dashes hopes whimsically, no matter what you try to do to prevent it, and the only defense against this trauma is to love the people in your life who are worth it.

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