Reading Pathways is a regular Book Riot feature in which we suggest a three-book reading sequence for becoming acquainted with certain authors. Check out previous entries on Toni Morrison, Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck John Irving and David Foster Wallace.
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Richard Russo is the man! Did you see his op/ed piece in the NY Times earlier this week? He and a bunch of his writer buddies basically issue a full-on smack down to That Evil Website Which Shall Not Be Named. Awesomeness, in spades! And since that piece re-confirms just how fantastic Richard Russo is, what better time to introduce you to his novels. So, if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading Russo, here’s a suggested reading pathway for one of my all-time favorite writers.
Start With a Laugh
Straight Man — Three words: duck hostage scene. Come back and thank me after you’ve read this utterly uproarious novel about a university professor who is nearing the end of his sanity. It’s easily one of my top 5 favorite comic novels of all time. And it’s a good introduction to Russo because you get acclimated to his style — though that’s not difficult — without yet having to confront some of the more sobering issues he tackles in his other novels.
Intro to the Small-Town Novels
Nobody’s Fool — Russo’s widely known as chronicler of small-town life — especially economically depressed small towns with economically depressed characters. His first two novels, Mohawk and The Risk Pool are also examples of this, but Nobody’s Fool is the best intro to such. The novel’s protagonist, Donald “Sully” Sullivan, an aging handyman, bumbles through life, stealing snowblowers and wagering with his one-legged lawyer on the outcome of The People’s Court. It’s funny, but tragically so.
The Near-Perfect Small-Town Novel
Empire Falls — This Pulitzer prize-winner is Russo’s best novel. It’s a novel about cruelty, as Russo has described it, but it’s also about trying to break through life’s supposed dead ends. In a small town in New York, Miles Roby owns a diner, raises his daughter Tick, and dreams of bigger things. But, as always, life intervenes. There are few novels more on-key than this one.
(Side note: I had the privilege of meeting Richard Russo at a special reception for alumni when he gave a reading at my alma mater, Marquette University, a few years ago. He talked about his friendship with Paul Newman, who stars in the movie version of Nobody’s Fool [VERY underrated movie, if you haven't seen it] and plays Miles’ crazy father in the HBO miniseries Empire Falls. When I went up to have him sign my books, I froze, and all I could think to say was: “Man, Robert Redford was made for the role of Sully in Nobody’s Fool, wasn’t he?!” He stopped writing, glanced at me briefly — as if to get a good look at the village idiot — and said, “You mean Paul Newman, right?” Yes, Mr. Russo. Yes I did.)