Reports of the death of Donald “Sully” Sullivan are somewhat exaggerated. In Somebody’s Fool, Richard Russo’s terrific new book in his North Bath, NY series, characters talk to Sully’s grave, look for the dead man to join them at the bar, and, when they are in a bind, they ask—maybe against their better judgment— What Would Sully Do?
Throughout the novel, Russo asks how past lives live on, how generations absorb each other, how whole worlds disappear… but maybe not for good. Take North Bath. When the novel begins, the blue-collar town is about to be dissolved into its bourgeois-bohemian neighbor, Schuyler Springs. The merger will solve the city of North Bath’s short-term budget problems, but it will drive up property taxes and drive out many of North Bath’s blue-collar residents. North Bath will die, but its former residents will live on. Where will they go and what kinds of lives will they lead?
Or will their lives go on at all? One of the book’s plot lines follows an investigation into the death of an unknown man who took his own life in North Bath’s abandoned grand hotel. Two investigating officers try to imagine the dead man’s story:
“We don’t know his identity, but what do we know about him?”
“Balding. Sweater vest. So probably an older guy.”
“Chinos, loafers, corduroy jacket. Who dresses like that?”
“Insurance agents? Small business owners?”
“Also, academics? Guy’s up for tenure, gets turned down, says goodbye cruel world?”
“Again, his disappearance gets reported.”
“Not if he’s on some kind of visiting gig. Regular faculty person falls ill. Replacement hired for fall semester only. Come December he turns in his grades, says goodbye to his friends. Nobody’s expecting to see him again, so he doesn’t get reported as missing.”
In a community that is breaking apart, it is all too easy for the officers to imagine people from different walks of life ending it all and going unmissed and unreported.
In Russo’s trademark repartee, Sully’s son Peter and Sully’s old frenemy Carl Roebuck ruminate on finding yourself in a world and a body you don’t recognize. Peter says:
“You’re the only man I know who has to get up to pee every twenty minutes and requires another twenty to actually do it.”
“Yeah? Well, have prostate surgery and see how often you have to pee.” They clinked glasses. “Anybody ever tell you you look more like your old man every day?”
“No one needs to. There’s a mirror in my bathroom.”
“Must be discouraging.”
“A little,” Peter admitted.
Although Russo asks us to feel for Sully and the people of North Bath, he rejects sentimentality. Sully, Russo reminds us in the person of Peter, abandoned his family for a barstool. And North Bath was not always welcoming to people of color: Charice Bond, a Black woman and the best officer on the city’s police force, was never fully accepted and supported by the White men on the force. When Charice is promoted in Schuyler Springs’ police department, some of those White men burn with resentment. Not all of North Bath is worth eulogizing.
So, what do you do, Russo’s characters ask, when your old world has died and the new one is hard to see or seems not to have a place for you? Peter, for instance, does not know what to do about his own estranged son who arrives unexpectedly at his door. Old friends of his father’s remind him of Sully’s words of barstool wisdom: “Do some fucking thing. If it doesn’t work, do something else.” What you do might not work. You might have to change course. But no matter how carefully you plan, you’re somebody’s fool at some point, so you may as well get on with it and put one foot in front of the other.
And you may as well get on with it and read this book. It’s a great extension of Russo’s North Bath stories. Across the book’s 451 pages, Russo makes one or two missteps—as in his previous North Bath book, Everybody’s Fool, his depiction of a romantic relationship between a Black woman and a White man is a little clumsy—but even Russo’s occasional missteps lead in interesting directions. Much more significant than the novel’s few flaws is its overall account—funny and compassionate, yet unsentimental—of small-town life in a world that is falling apart.
by Richard Russo
Knopf Publishing Group
Published on July 25, 2023
Ross Collin is an associate professor of English education at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. He writes about the political and ethical dimensions of literacy education. His writing has appeared in The Journal of Literacy Research, English Journal, Changing English, and Teachers College Record.