Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo
I first read "Nobody's Fool" about 3 1/2 years ago and at the time I only gave it four stars because I was disappointed with the ending. After rereading the novel, I'm willing now to give it that extra star it deserves. This is a tremendous, tremendous book, even if there isn't really any conflict resolution at the end.
Upon second reading, I was reminded a lot of when I read Anne Tyler's Pulitzer-winning "Breathing Lessons." Both books have the same in-depth storytelling that makes the characters and the world around them seem so fully realized it's easy to believe you could find the town of Bath in upstate New York and run into Donald Sullivan, his cronies, and his nemeses.
And like "Breathing Lessons," the plot of "Nobody's Fool" sounds pretty thin for a 550-page book and not all that enticing. Donald "Sully" Sullivan is a rascally laborer (mostly working under the table) with a bum knee only getting worse, a best friend who smells worse than the garbage he sometimes hauls with his cousins, a lover married to someone else, an an ex-wife who thinks he's Satan incarnate, and a son he never thought much about. Over the Thanksgiving-Christmas holidays his luck seems to go from bad to worse as his estranged son returns after being let go from the college where he teaches, Sully's claim for full disability is denied (again), and he punches a police officer, landing him in jail. There's more to that, but it's hard to describe without going on and on about the background of the story because everything that happens seems to extend organically from Sully's bullheaded personality. The only "plot twist" involves the possible building of a theme park and the local savings and loan, but this doesn't contribute a lot to the overall story except to compound the bad luck facing Sully and just about everyone else in Bath.
The writing in this book is just about top-notch and as I said earlier, the setting and characters are about as vivid as anything I've ever read. There aren't the contrivances you find in most other books, including Russo's Pulitzer-winning "Empire Falls," which I feel is a lesser novel than "Nobody's Fool." The two share a lot of the same DNA, along with Russo's "Mohawk" and "The Risk Pool" but I think "Nobody's Fool" is where Russo was really on top of his game.
The only problem as I mentioned earlier and in my original review is there is seemingly no resolution at the end. The novel just sort of coasts to a stop. Everyone's lives--including Sully's--seem to have taken a turn but we don't really know if it was for better or worse. It's disappointing especially because characters like Sully and Miss Peoples are so likable despite their faults that you really want to know what happens to them; you really don't want this book to end. And generally speaking, that's a great problem to have, which is why I'm giving back the star I took away before.
The caution here is that if you're someone who likes reading plot-driven books, this isn't for you. This is a slow, kind of sleepy narrative that appeals to only the more patient readers out there who can appreciate the completeness and reality of the world Russo creates.
By the way, the 1994 movie version of this starring Paul Newman, Jessica Tandy, and Bruce Willis is also excellent. That might be better for those who don't want to plow through all 550 pages here.
That is all.