Archive for March 22nd, 2006

Money Matters: Richard Russo’s "Nobody’s Fool"

March 22, 2006

There is a tendency by people in the academy, such as myself, to glorify the poor. To think of them as in some way morally superior to the rich who have been corrupted by money. Which, of course, goes ahead and assumes that the rich are corrupt. This view of things is offset by what seems to be a more prevailing view of money and corruptness: God has blessed the rich with wealth; poor people are the lazy bums who simply refuse to pull themselves up by their cliched bootstraps. It’s easy to think either of these ways. There are lots of corrupt rich people. There are lots of lazy bums.

Try as they might, many artists fail to capture the complexities of individuals when money comes into the picture. Characters begin to stand for ideologies or are simply stereotypes.

A couple of years ago I read Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Empire Falls, and was left thoroughly underwhelmed. It was a forgettable book. But he was a Pulitzer Prize winner and it must have just been my fault for not “getting it”, so when he published a collection of short stories, The Whore’s Child, a year or so later, and it was like eating cotton.

But then see, there’s a problem people like me who are always telling my friends what to read run into. Friends decide they want to give ME recommendations. Most of the time I can placate them with a, yeah, I’ve been meaning to pick that up, and then we both just forget about it. Except for this one pesky friend of mine who stays on my case until I read at least one of the books he’s telling me about (seriously, we have the same wireless service, so our minutes are free, so he calls me cross country on a daily basis sometimes for the express purpose of asking me if I’ve started the frieking book yet).

My friend’s most recent recommendation made me shudder. It was a novel by Richard Russo, Straight Man. I decided, after two weeks worth of calls, to just pick the stupid book up, read a few pages, and tell my friend it sucked and to shut up about it. I ended up reading it in a couple of days, laughing out loud. It’s a slightly absurd look at life at a university. It’s smart and funny and witty and will make you laugh. It was so good that I did something I almost never do – picked up another book by the same writer. This time it was Nobody’s Fool, a book more than a decade old.

Nobody’s Fool takes place in a small upstate New York town of Bath. Bath is a very small town that has fallen on hard times. It’s a miserably cold place, and the main character is a miserably cynical 60 year old named Sulley. Sulley is a lifelong fix-it-up man. He is content. He works just enough to pay his rent and buy his meals and drinks at the local bar, where he spends every night. Sulley is a frustrating man. He always has a smart remark for everyone, and he doesn’t seem to care much about their feelings.

Sulley’s sometime boss is the richest man in Bath. He owns a construction company, inherited all of his money, and is married to the most beautiful woman in town. And he’s a complete jerk. Cheats on his wife. Cheats people out of money. He has a smart remark for everyone, and he doesn’t seem to care much about their feelings.

On some level, this novel reads as a series of epiphanies. These two men, as well as the rest of the characters, all seem to have realizations about their shortcomings and become more likeable toward the end of the novel. But, it’s really more complicated than that. Russo fools the readers. The characters don’t really change in the course of the novel. Okay, they change, but not substantially. The epiphanies belong to the readers. We begin to like the characters in spite of their shortcomings. We begin to like Sully’s wise-cracks because we see the honest heart that they come from. We begin to like the richest man in town because, well, he’s just likeable. We know we shouldn’t like him, but he’s so huggable.

It is intriguing that Russo continually brings up money in relation to the characters. He wants readers to make judgements about the moral character of the individuals because of the money in their bank account. Then he spends the hundreds of pages destroying the relationship between money and character. Some people have good hearts and no money. Some people have good hearts and lots of money. But most people are equally likeable and disgusting if we get a glimpse inside their heads (as we do in the novel) regardless of their career or house or car or possessions.

What Russo does that is so refreshing in the how-money-relates-to-morality is show how similar the have’s and the have-not’s are. They both be at times charming and disgusting. They can be at times selfish and giving. They are alike in more ways than we are used to, or even comfortable with, thinking. The redemption in the novel doesn’t necessarily belong to the characters. There lives don’t end happily ever after, and they don’t make dramatic changes in the way they live. The redemption, if any is to be had, is with the reader. Readers are allowed to see the goods and the bads of each of these characters. And, as I said earlier, Russo continually mentions the financial status of the characters. Ultimately what he shows isn’t a universality of humankind so much as similarities between socio-economic groups. Attributes we often associated with the wealthy (good work ethic, honesty, intellect) are seen just as often in the poor. Attributes often associated with the poor (lazy, ignorant, something-for-nothing types) are seen just as often in the wealthy characters.

Russo challenges the way both the Left and the Right often think about the relationship between “success” and “moral character.” He isn’t preachy and he doesn’t reach conclusions. He merely — merely! — writes about social class in an intelligent, entertaining, and non-stereotypical way.

Currently about to finish: Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gorevitch. Kushiel’s Chosen by Jacqueline Carey. Shades of Glory by Laurence Hogan.