'Everybody's Fool' revisits Sully Sullivan and his crumbling hometown

Pulitzer Prize winner Russo’s return to his fictional upstate New York mill town also marks a welcome return to the hard-bitten, hard-drinking, hardscrabble comedy of his first novels.

Everybody's Fool By Richard Russo Knopf Doubleday 496 pp.

Donald “Sully” Sullivan doesn’t quite know what to do with himself anymore. After a life lived right on the line – with more than a few hopscotches across it – the small-town hustler has come late to something resembling respectability.

“These days … his third act well under way, though his core belief hadn’t changed, his behavior had,” he thinks in Everybody’s Fool. “At seventy, in what at least his doctors believed to be terminally failing health, Sully had reluctantly come to suspect that misbehavior was a younger man’s sport.”

Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo’s return to his fictional upstate New York mill town also marks a welcome return to the hard-bitten, hard-drinking, hardscrabble comedy of his first novels. And his timing is impeccable: The “Empire Falls” author understands more about the “plight of the working class” than any so-called pundit attempting to decipher this election.

Sully is Russo’s most well-known and endearing character – his portrayal by Oscar-winner Paul Newman in the 1994 movie “Nobody’s Fool” certainly didn’t hurt. (I still have a huge fondness for Russo's academic satire, "Straight Man.")

Fiscal security sits uneasily on Sully in the ruefully wise sequel, set in the late 1990s. The man who once went to extraordinary lengths to steal his boss’s snow blower now has a savings account – “the balance of which had now swollen to the point where, despite heroic resolve, he couldn’t possibly hope to drink it up at the Horse during what remained of his life.”

The past 10 years have sent Sully and his hometown of North Bath on different trajectories. Both are a little more weather beaten, but the one doesn’t quite know what to do with his run of good fortune, while the other passed punch-drunk a long time ago and now can’t waste the energy flinching.

Justice in Bath is having a rough summer. The judge has died. At the funeral, the chief of police faints into his grave. This is not the most humiliating thing that will happen to Douglas Raymer over the weekend. (Readers of “Nobody’s Fool,” will remember him as the unfortunate officer who once pulled a gun on Sully. Fans of the film will remember him as played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.)

There’s a new mayor, Guy Moynihan, a retired college professor who wrote a newspaper editorial “decrying the town’s moribund defeatism and criticizing the current Republican administration’s unspoken policies, which could be summed up, he claimed, in nine words: No Spending. None. Ever. On Anything. Under Any Circumstances.

Bath has begun a beautification program – looking into benches, bike trails, and the possibility of serving ramps (whatever those are) in local restaurants. “Overnight, the new byword was ‘partnering.’ ” If they can’t outdo their sister city, Schuyler Springs (and they can’t – not after 100 years of trying), North Bath will stop being a resentful bystander and instead become a partner in success. In theory, anyway.

Efforts to turn the old shoe factory into urban lofts go wildly awry – courtesy of Sully’s old boss, Carl Roebuck, whose Tip Top Construction is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. “Old-guard pessimists grumbled that the town wasn’t so much partnering for tomorrow with a gifted entrepreneur as fronting for yesterday’s known swindler.”

Even more harmful to the town’s efforts to attract tourists, there’s a stench hovering like a miasma any time the temperature hits 85. “Bath, visitors remarked, wrinkling their noses and quickly getting back in their cars, needed a long one itself.” The local cemetery is eroding, leading to headlines like “Dead on the Move in Bath.” And someone has let loose a cobra at the rundown apartment complex.

The cobra is actually only the second-most venomous denizen of Bath, after wife beater and all-around nasty piece of work Roy Purdy, who is back in town with his list (similar to Arya’s on “Game of Thrones,” only he’s neither plucky nor adorable).

Against these forces of chaos stand Sully and his erstwhile opponent Chief Raymer, the fool of the title, who isn’t sure he’s cut out for his chosen profession. (Neither is anyone else in town, except Charice, his dispatch officer.) “Police work, more than any other profession, attracted people for the wrong reasons – in Raymer’s case, the desire to be useful. You’d be given orders and you’d execute these to the best of your ability. It never occurred to him that part of the job was figuring out, without being told, exactly what the job was.”

In addition to his hangdog personality and stammer, Raymer has been thrown off-balance by the death of his wife, Becka, on the day she had planned to leave him. The only clue he has to the identity of her lover is a garage door-opener. Becka’s unhappiness is unsurprising: If times are hard for the men in North Bath, the women experience lives of bone-grinding toughness.

Raymer (motto, thanks to a typo: “I’m not happy until you’re not happy”) had a small part in the first book. Here, he becomes the shambling hero, sharing narrative duties with Sully, Sully’s sidekick Rub; Sully’s former lover, Ruth, who runs the local diner; and other residents. That broadening of viewpoints can make the plot feel more diffuse, especially since not every character holds readers’ attentions as well as the two fools of the piece.

But, from the physical comedy to the comeuppances, Russo, who knows where every barrel of toxic waste is buried in town, remains ultimately in control of his big-hearted, calloused novel. The characters may never figure out how to prepare ramps, but this tourist will always welcome a chance to drop back in on North Bath.

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