Somebody's Fool: A novel (North Bath Trilogy)
“Richard Russo once again brings to life a world of closely connected, interdependent-in-spite-of-themselves characters who feel remarkably familiar and gut-bustingly real.”
Like many successful songwriters, The Band’s Robbie Robertson is neither comfortable explaining the meaning of his songs nor particularly adept at it. But once he took a stab at explaining one of his first great songs, “The Weight,” and came up with a surprisingly cogent and unpretentious answer: “It was this very simple thing,” he explained, where a man is driving to Nazareth, Pennsylvania, and a woman asks him to say hello to someone for her while he’s there. “Then one favor leads to another and it’s like ‘Holy shit, what’s this turned into?’” In a broader sense, Robertson said, “It’s about people trying to be good and how it’s impossible to be good.”
The struggle of reasonably well-intentioned people to be or do good without getting in their own way or chronically (and comically) falling short of expectations has been a recurring theme of Richard Russo's work for more than 30 years. Perhaps no son of an absentee father has ever written so humorously or empathetically about a certain brand of deadbeat dad than Richard Russo in his upstate New York novels. And nowhere has he channeled his own father more convincingly than in the North Bath trilogy that began in 1993 with the classic Nobody’s Fool and concludes with the just-published Somebody’s Fool.
Russo’s indelible Donald “Sully” Sullivan has achieved a new degree of absenteeism in Somebody’s Fool, having died 10 years before the story resumes on a February weekend in 2010.
Yet Sully’s absence feels as high-proximity as ever, particularly in the life of his 50-ish son, Peter. Sully deserted Peter early on and kept his distance without ever putting two miles between them. Peter can’t quite seem to leave North Bath after half a lifetime of trying, and his "sucked back into Sully World" existence remains densely populated with people he promised his father he would check in on after Sully was gone—a promise that snowballs throughout the book.
In Somebody's Fool, Peter realizes, perhaps a few years too late, that “free will was not the Get Out of Jail Free card people wanted it to be. You begin to understand that when you start inheriting things—money and houses, yes, but also obligations.” The infuriatingly irresistible Sully seems to have passed on such inherited obligations and to-do lists to multiple longtime friends and neighbors before he passed on to the great beyond, binding them together and revealing how much all of them, in their own way, had relied on Sully himself.
As readers of Russo’s two previous North Bath novels know well, Sully was the last guy you'd want to rely on, a man who was on most days as hilariously feckless and luckless as anyone in that luckless town. In North Bath, Richard Russo once again brings to life a world of closely connected, interdependent-in-spite-of-themselves characters who feel remarkably familiar and gut-bustingly real. Improbably, it’s the kind of place where a ne’er-do-well like Sully can leave behind tiny good-doing vacuums everywhere when he’s gone to exasperate the consciences and exhaust the time and energy of those he left behind.
Russo, who has described Somebody’s Fool as “a period at the end of a very long sentence,” has never seemed in a great rush to finish that sentence or the gently paced story it told, any more than Sully ever seemed inclined to slide off his barstool at North Bath’s crumbling White Horse Inn and rush off to do much of anything. As Birdie, owner of the Horse since time immemorial, observes upon seeing Peter planting himself on Sully’s stool early on in Somebody’s Fool, “His father had a way of sliding onto a barstool that suggested he’d been put on earth to execute this very maneuver, and Peter had inherited Sully’s very specific grace.”
Much of Somebody’s Fool finds Peter struggling to manage his checkered inheritance, from fix-’er-up real estate and horse track winnings to the many threads that bind him to the hometown he never intended to return to, but can’t seem to shake.
As of 2010, Peter has been back nearly 12 years, and North Bath isn’t even a town anymore. Plunged deeper than ever into bitter post-industrial blight by the Great Recession, North Bath has been officially incorporated into a far luckier neighboring town, Schuyler Springs, which boasts a destination racetrack, world-class performing arts center, historic hot springs, yuppified downtown, and elite college (much like its real-life counterpart Saratoga Springs). Meanwhile North Bath’s residents’ resentment toward their well-heeled next-town neighbors and far-side-of-the-culture-war rivals remains as strong as ever.
Though Peter’s breadth of interests extends well beyond North Bath, and his day jobs include teaching in Schuyler Springs and running an alternative weekly newspaper there, he remains strangely stuck in his hometown. Much of that entanglement persists through Peter’s connections to his father’s old friends and frenemies, including Sully’s beleaguered ex-lover Ruth; his hapless, cut-adrift sidekick Rub; and Carl and Toby Roebuck, Sully’s egocentric ex-boss and Carl’s audacious ex-wife.
Somebody’s Fool also tracks the parallel adventures of Doug Raymer, known as Officer Raymer in Nobody’s Fool, Chief in Everybody’s Fool, and recently returned to private citizen status by the dissolution of the North Bath police force. We find Raymer struggling with a course of psychotherapy that he doesn’t much believe in; the perplexing disappearance of his odious inner voice, Dougie; a suspended-in-limbo relationship status with his sharp-tongued, younger girlfriend Charice (herself now contending with a resentful rank and file as Schuyler Springs’ first Black woman police chief); his new roommate, Charice’s volatile and depressed brother Jerome; and an unidentified corpse at North Bath’s derelict Sans Souci hotel that draws him unofficially back into police work. Through all his inner and outer turmoil and nagging self-doubt, Raymer somehow retains his “seemingly congenital inability to surrender hope.”
The year 2010 finds Peter Sullivan an empty nester of sorts, with his grown son Will (raised by Peter in New York with a great redemptive assist from Grandpa Sully) in London on a Fulbright. But the incident that kicks the book’s action into motion (along with the corpse at the Sans Souci) is the unexpected arrival of Peter’s estranged and all-but-forgotten son Thomas (known to Peter only by his early childhood nickname Wacker and unseen since Nobody’s Fool). Thomas, who says he and his canary yellow Cadillac beater are just passing through on the way to Montreal, has grown up with his mother in West Virginia in deep poverty with an abusive stepfather that makes Will’s New York upbringing seem idyllic. Departing Peter’s doorstep after a brief and unnerving encounter, Thomas leaves his father with the suspicion that for all his success with favored child Will, Peter’s absence from Thomas’s life has harmed him just as Sully’s did him.
“Peter had actually been in Thomas’s place, and not that long ago,” Russo writes. “The myriad resentments he’d felt where Sully was concerned had taken him most of his adult life to work through, and in the end he hadn’t so much banished them as brought them under control, allowing Sully, a man who was as charming as he was feckless, to grow on him, to gradually enter his affection. Whereas Thomas, if their conversation today was taken at face value, had skipped that entire process.”
Peter finds himself simultaneously wondering if the shot at redemption his father got with him will ever come with the son he so egregiously failed, and how he neglected Thomas so badly after resolving not to repeat his father’s mistakes. Sully’s oft-repeated remedy for dealing with just-as-oft-repeated failures—“just do something, and if that doesn't work, try something else”—begins to feel like indispensable wisdom.
What makes the wisdom of Russo’s three Fool novels so satisfying is knowing the accumulated folly behind it, and the sense that his characters have found the right path mostly through process of elimination. That they recognize both the degree to which they’ve disappointed and damaged each other and the randomness of redemption but still keep looking for it is inherent to their enormous appeal.
Sully’s posthumous presence in Somebody’s Fool and the destinies it shapes and prefigures feel like the fulfillment of one particular comic exchange he had with Carl Roebuck atop their White Horse barstools in Everybody’s FooI:
“Carl shrugged . . . ‘Do you believe in reincarnation?’
‘You mean like we die and then we have to do this fucking thing all over again?’
‘Yeah, like that.’
‘Jesus, I hope not.’
‘I don’t know,’ Carl said. ‘Second time around we might be smarter.’
‘We might be dumber, too.’”