“astringent observations make these stories an entertaining and compellingly provocative read.”
Creative writing professors urge students to write what they know; to show, don’t tell; and to find their voice.
The last of these instructions is the key to the four stories in Richard Russo’s Trajectory. Readers familiar with Russo’s novels know he has a well-defined voice for the middle-class, blue-collar worker. His style garnered him a Pulitzer Prize (2002) for Empire Falls. Other novels include Nobody’s Fool, Straight Man, Bridge of Sighs, and Everybody’s Fool. In this collection, Russo turns his acerbic vision and voice to white collar professionals in academia, real estate, and screenwriting.
In the first story, “Horseman,” when literature professor Janet Moore uncovers a student plagiarist, she discovers more about her own character than she does about his act of cheating. In a series of flashbacks to her graduate school days as a teaching assistant, she recalls an incident with “the great” Marcus Bellamy, a “brilliant” professor of “proletarian fiction.” Students clamor to get into his “widely oversubscribed” classes. He is a “true academic superstar.” Bellamy has “serious misgivings” about Janet’s essay writing. He claims she lacks passion and commitment to her work and ideas. Despite her “lively intellect” and “genuine curiosity,” Bellamy tells her that her writing needs a “passionate, personal connection.” He tells her she will succeed but she will “’just never be any good.’” In short, she has no voice, nothing to identify her individuality.
The same passion and connection seems missing in Janet’s marriage and her personal life. She meets her husband, Robbie, in graduate school. While she succeeds in completing her doctorate and gaining a teaching position, he takes a job “writing grants for local nonprofits.”
Two days before Thanksgiving break, while confronting the “sullen” student, Janet realizes that Bellamy may have been right, that she uses “the study of literature to distance herself and build a fortress around her heart.” While Bellamy’s essays have a “human presence tangible in every word,” “ hers have the “absence” of a voice.
In the second and longest story in the collection, another English professor (semi-retired), Nate, is the main character in the aptly titled, “Voice.” This is a retitled story that originally was published as a novella, Nate in Venice (2013). Here, like Janet Moore in “Horseman,” Nate is also dealing with personal demons from his past, including a life-altering encounter with a student in his undergraduate Jane Austen seminar and an ongoing estrangement from his older brother, Julian.
Nate has agreed to travel from Massachusetts to Venice, Italy, for four days during the Biennale art festival in an attempt to reconcile with Julian, a “career salesman.” Because of something that “happened with the Mauntz girl” in the Austen seminar, Nate has been driven into a “self-imposed solitude.” He hopes that the trip will put him “back in the world of others.” Those others are a group comprised of the officious organizer of the trip and her unassuming husband, two divorcees, a widower, and the “endearingly insulting” tour leader. Before the trip is over, Nate engages with each of them, actually “flirting with happiness” to the edge of “optimism.”
But Nate’s incident with the Mauntz girl threatens to derail his enthusiasm. Even though Opal Mauntz never speaks in the seminar, she has the most distinctive voice in her essays. She writes with “an intelligence that was truly engaging.” It’s when Nate tries to engage her with the other students that disaster befalls him.
Despite the fact that he has been forewarned by the dean that Opal “should not be required to speak” because of her level of Asperger’s, his attempts to encourage her to be part of the group sends Opal into a tail spin which affects Nate’s career. He commits the “worst mistake of a career that was itself a mistake,” which turns Opal’s voice in print into a “keening yowl.”
During the trip, Julian continues to behave in a manner that underscores Nate’s impression of him as a “selfish, arrogant asshole.” A series of events that “add up to a case study in avoidance” ultimately leads to Julian’s hasty departure and to Nate’s resolve that “life is, seemingly by design, a botched job.”
In the third story, “Intervention,” another set of brothers, Ray and Bill, contend with family issues in Maine. Each is struggling to come out of the shadow of their father and his brother, their uncle Jack. Together, Ray and Bill’s purpose “was always the same—to get their father to invest in one of Jack’s many schemes, each pitched as the investment opportunity of a lifetime.”
While Ray is a successful realtor, now enduring a real estate slow down, Bill is still “gallivanting around,” very much aware at 57 years old that every day he lies to himself “just to keep going.” Ray’s attempts to intervene in Bill’s life have always “ended badly” just as their uncle’s interventions in their father’s life always ended disastrously.
Several interventions also occur in the final story, “Milton and Marcus,” a scathing insider’s view of the evanescent world of Hollywood in an industry that “traffics in illusion.” Here the distinctive voice belongs to fading novelist and hopeful screenwriter, Ryan. In his 60s, he is attempting to revive his career with a 14-page script he wrote more than a decade ago.
The exigencies of the business are apparent when he travels from Vermont to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to meet with a prominent actor, a director, and a producer. He knows that writers are “hirelings,” in a “whole charade” that is “tawdry and transparent,” but he needs this project in order to get health insurance for his ailing wife. Recognizing that some writers have “less fuel in the tank than others,” Ryan nevertheless persists in what might prove a fruitless endeavor.
All four stories in Trajectory underscore Russo’s powerful voice in a series of vibrant narratives with distinctive characters. His sardonic humor captures the preposterous nature of academia and the blustery world of screenwriting. His astringent observations make these stories an entertaining and compellingly provocative read.