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August 14, 2013

“The Whore’s Child”

by Anne Paddock

Readers often ask me who my favorite writers are and although the question is tantamount to asking what my favorite foods are (there are many; where should I start?), I usually answer “Jonathan Franzan, John Irving, and Richard Russo” because the trio represents an elite group of writers whose prose never fails to keep my interest. Each author has his own writing style but they all share the traits of great writers – sentence fluency, character depth, memorable word choice, and an interesting story to tell.

Of the three, Richard Russo is probably the least well-known to the people who ask me the favorite writer question but as soon as I follow-up my answer with a short list of Russo’s works:  Empire Falls, Nobody’s Fool – they register faint recognition.  Mention that Paul Newman played the lead role in several films (who better to play Donald “Sully” Sullivan than Paul Newman in Nobody’s Fool?) that were adapted from Russo’s books and their eyes gleam with acknowledgment.

1011_bookFor anyone unfamiliar with Richard Russo, his books tend to be about life in upstate New York and New England during the mid to late 20th century; a time when small blue collar towns were dependent upon the local industries – tanneries, mills, and plants – for employment and economic well-being. Often autobiographical, Russo’s stories contain characters who bear a resemblance to himself, his parents, and the people he grew up and worked with.  It’s the mundane day-to-day small town living brought to life on the pages of a book in which the author is able to make the seemingly boring life interesting and that is why I enjoy reading Russo’s work.

In 2002, Russo published a short story collection entitled The Whore’s Child named for the first story in the collection about a nun who enrolls in a college professor’s advanced writing class despite having never taken a writing course in the past. Written in the first person from the professor’s perspective, The Whore’s Child is as much a story about the nun’s desire to tell her story as it is about the professor’s experience with someone who had a story to tell.

There are six other short stories in the collection, almost all of which are told from the perspective of a middle-aged man. In Monhegan Light, a Hollywood photography director named Martin and his young cosmetically enhanced girlfriend take a trip to Monhegan – an island on the northeast coast where his deceased wife of twenty years used to go every summer allegedly with her sister but in reality to continue an affair with a local artist. Concealing the true nature of the trip – to meet the man who loved his wife – Martin realizes the ” trip wasn’t so much about saying good-bye to his wife as saying hello.”

The opening scene in The Farther You Go is of a man cutting his lawn on the new riding lawn mower his wife purchased under the guise the seat would bring comfort to a man recovering from prostate surgery. That it was about the most uncomfortable way to cut the lawn after prostate surgery only exacerbates the 52-year old’s frustration with the wife who doesn’t seem to understand him. Called off the lawn mower by his wife to go rescue their young adult daughter from her bully of a husband, Hank embarks on a short journey that gives the reader insight into his inner most thoughts on his wife, his grown kids, his own mortality and the woman he once lusted after.  Wildly witty and funny, The Farther You Go is an entertaining story that will make you laugh and appreciate that a parent’s job is never done and that a spouse just may know you better than you think.

In Joy Ride, a man named John looks back on a trip he took with his mother when he was 12 years old and the ultimate meaning that experience had on his family’s life.  Frustrated with her marriage and her son’s middle school hooligan friends, John’s mother decides to leave the small Maine town for a new life in California. Along the way, they both learn a lot about each other and that “the worst truths are contained in our many silences.”

Paul and June Snow of Ithaca, New York are the main characters in Buoyancy, a short story about a recently retired college professor who is troubled by a his forced retirement, the long-term affair he had with a graduate student and the effect his decisions have had on his wife’s mental health.  In a moment of self-reflection, Paul tries “to imagine their marriage was as buoyant as water, their mistakes weightless and inconsequential in the sudden swell of affection”  but knows otherwise.

In Poison, Russo seems to be telling a personal story of how he and his wife came to acquire a cottage on the coast of Maine and how that cottage interplays with the annual visit of his childhood friend, Gene – a troubled writer who enjoys tenure at a midwestern university – and his new abrasive wife, Portia. Russo and Gene grew up together in a small town in upstate New York where most people – including both their fathers – were employed by the local mill that was slowly poisoning the town’s inhabitants for more than 50 years by dumping waste into the water.  Over the weekend, Gene and Russo entertain the idea of going back to the town and exposing the injustice in hopes of closing down the mill.  When asked “did any one group of men have the right to poison another?,” each man views the answer differently.

The Mysteries of Lynwood Hart is the lone ranger of sorts in Russo’s collection of short stories in that the story is told from the perspective of a 10-year old boy. Lynwood “Lin” Hart marches to the beat of a different drum although he shares every young boy’s dream to be a great baseball player. More of a philosopher than an athlete, Lin is focused on not being the worst player on his team while trying to make sense of his home life. His father recently moved to an apartment over the town barbershop and his mother is being actively courted by his little league coach who doubles as a house painter. Add the early stirrings of a young boy when he discovers the wonders of breasts and there’s more on Lin’s plate than he cares to think about. A hilarious story about how adults make things so complicated.

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