The release of Richard Russo’s latest novel, Everybody’s Fool, reminded me that I never read Russo’s earlier book, Nobody’s Fool, published in 1994. I saw the movie starring Paul Newman, and enjoyed it but, more to the point, I am a fan of Pulitzer Prize-winning Russo’s other novels. I decided before I began the new book, I should take the time to read the first one.
Donald Sully, the erstwhile hero of Nobody’s Fool, is a small town legend. The son of an angry, alcoholic, and abusive brawler, “Sully” as Donald is known in North Bath, N.Y., does everything he can to follow in his now-dead father’s footsteps, all the while cursing the traumatic childhood he and his brother endured. Sixty years old, Sully was once the high school football hero. As the book opens, he is now a down-on-his-luck handyman and day laborer, divorced and distanced from his adult son, Peter.
But there’s another side to Sully, for all his bad habits, that seems to endear him to the people in town even while they excoriate him. Perhaps it is only in small towns where close physical proximity forces people, much in the way of nuclear families or small businesses, to accept what they’ve got and make the most of it. Certainly in Sully’s case, while few admire him, most everyone seems to accept him.
He is described in this way:
Throughout his life a case study underachiever, Sully – people still remarked — was nobody’s fool, a phrase that Sully no doubt appreciated without ever sensing its literal application — that at 60, he was divorced from his own wife, carrying on halfheartedly with another man’s, estranged from his son, devoid of self-knowledge, badly crippled and virtually unemployable — all of which he stubbornly confused with independence.
Sully rents an apartment in the upstairs floor of his junior high school teacher, Beryl Peoples. It is very possible that Ms. Peoples is one of only two people in the town of North Bath who truly loves Sully. The other is a gnomelike sidekick named Rub, who idolizes his “best friend,” Sully. Sully, on the other hand, both uses and abuses poor Rub as the mood hits him. Much like the fool in classical literature, Rub provides not only comic relief but an emotional foil against which we see a transformation in Sully as the novel progresses.
It is Mr. Russo’s genius that enables us to root for Sully even as we feel a bit of gratitude that he isn’t our own next door neighbor. Francine Prose explains the success of this novel (for in spite of Sully’s many shortcomings, as a reader you find yourself caring for the man and hoping that things do turn out well) in this way:
. . . Mr. Russo deals with interesting themes: change and stasis, free will and obligation, luck, responsibility, forgiveness — the bonds of community, friendship and family. He offers us apt observations of human types, human behavior.
To that point, I believe it is near the end of the novel that we discover what it is about Sully that keeps us engaged, keeps us hoping that all goes well. After a comic scene in which Sully’s grandson, Will, cautiously returns an artificial leg to its rightful owner, Russo exposes the inner Sully in a rare flash of self-awareness:
For a moment, as Sully watched, it wasn’t Will standing there but Peter, the Peter he remembered as a boy. Or maybe even himself, the boy he remembered himself to have been so long ago, the boy who had a heart capable of being broken.
We leave Sully at the end of the story better off than we found him at the beginning. Apparently it is true – Sully is nobody’s fool.