Friday, April 18, 2008

The Unluckiest Man in Upstate New York

The last time I went to the library, I was on a nonfiction tear. After the haul of lackluster novels, I thought I'd try some nonfiction. Then I didn't. I got about a quarter of the way into a book on the Black Dahlia murder and never picked it back up, or any of the other books. While my library sends me increasingly angry emails ("Please return the following at once!") I've been reading an old favorite, Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo.

I first read this book in graduate school and have since come to believe that I've located all of the inspirations in Upstate New York for the fictional upstate New York town of Bath, where this book is set. The geographic location of it -- about a half hour north of Albany near the Northway, in proximity to a wealthier town -- would put it where Ballston Spa is located, its wealthy, tourist-destination sister city being Saratoga Springs. Yet, I think the idea of the economically depressed former tourist magnate came from the haunting town of Sharon Springs further west, with its large, palatial, abandoned mineral bath hotels (I also think some of the inspiration for Disney's Tower of Terror came from here, too). Finally, I think the inspiration for the subplot about the proposed amuseument park came from the expansion and rebranding of the Great Escape in Lake George.

Knowing all of these places fairly well makes me feel an intimate connection with the story, but Russo's characters are so terrific that you can't help but feel that anyway. He has a knack for making them feel both ordinary and extraordinary. They're not "colorful" in a manufactured way, but they seem like real people with complexities, eccentricities, pasts, hopes and dreams. This is a holiday story, starting on the day before Thanksgiving and wrapping up around New Year's. It chronicles the life of Sully -- Don Sullivan, mid-50s, long-divorced, in a long-term affair, renting a flat from his eighth-grade English teacher and working under the table for a local construction magnate and tomcat.

Sully is, at heart, a lone wolf, who's drifted through life largely without strings. That's his own position, and the surface evidence seems to support it. He owns nothing but a beat-up pickup truck. He has no profession. He's been having an affair with the same woman for twenty years, but she's not really his. He has a son from his marriage, but he's not close to him. Yet, the more you read, the more you see how connected he is to everyone in town, and even to the poeple in his own life. By the end of the book, he begins to see this too. You also get glimpses into his past that explain his aggressive avoidance of ties.

This is really Sully's story, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the other principal in this story. Sully's landlady, Miss Beryl, was Jessica Tandy's last role in the film version and a moving character in the book. She's probably in her late eighties, and few fiction writers seem to want to take on writing from the point of view of an elderly character (this book is written from an omniscient point of view). Russo handles it deftly. Miss Beryl struggles with her own mortality and her increasing physical limitations. She struggles with her feelings about her grown son, and whether they represent more of an accurate assessment or are a harbinger of failing faculties. She struggles with her conflicting desires to remain a part of society and her disgust with that same society after having seen a lifetime of it. Empire Falls gets more attention, but this is far and away my favorite Richard Russo book.

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