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Understanding Richard Russo

Kathleen Drowne

Publication Year: 2014

Understanding Richard Russo explores the significant themes and patterns in this contemporary American author’s seven novels, a memoir, and two short story collections, including the 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Empire Falls. Known for assembling large casts of eccentric characters and sweeping multi-generational storylines, Russo brings to life hard-hit rural manufacturing towns and their inhabitants even as he explores the bewildering, painful complexities of family relationships. This critical study by Kathleen Drowne first recounts Russo’s biography, then explores his novels chronologically, and ends with a chapter dedicated to his other works. Drowne invites readers to appreciate more fully Russo’s evocative portrayals of hardscrabble working-class life in failing rural towns of the Northeast by identifying major themes and patterns present in Russo’s work. In Mohawk, The Risk Pool, Nobody’s Fool, Empire Falls and Bridge of Sighs, readers can see the primary recurring theme of Russo’s work: the plight of deteriorating rural communities and the dramatic impact of that decline on their blue-collar inhabitants. A second important theme in Russo’s fiction is the complicated relationship between emotionally scarred sons and their abusive, absent, or neglectful fathers; such relationships fuel the narratives of The Risk Pool, Nobody’s Fool, Empire Falls, Bridge of Sighs, and That Old Cape Magic. Russo also utilizes large casts of realistic but highly eccentric characters—worn-out shopkeepers and odd-jobbers, alcoholics, invalids, and ne’er-do-wells—whose lives are emblematic of both the dignity and the desperation of crumbling Rust Belt towns. Russo possesses, as one New York Times reviewer commented, “that wonderfully unfashionable gift for effortless storytelling on a sweeping, multigenerational scale,” which undoubtedly cements his place among his contemporaries in modern American literature. Drowne offers readers an insightful point of entrance into Russo’s body of work to date.

Published by: University of South Carolina Press

Series: Understanding Contemporary American Literature

Title Page, About the Series, Copyright, Dedication

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Series Editor’s Preface

Linda Wagner-Martin

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pp. ix-x

The Understanding Contemporary American Literature series was founded by the estimable Matthew J. Bruccoli (1931–2008), who envisioned these volumes as guides or companions for students as well as good nonacademic readers, a legacy that will continue as new volumes are developed to fill in gaps among the nearly one hundred series volumes published to date and to...

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pp. xi-xii

I would like to thank several people whose assistance made this book possible. The librarians at the Curtis Laws Wilson Library at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, especially Dawn Mick, Marsha Fuller, and June Snell, cheerfully helped me acquire dozens of items that contributed to this work. My research assistant, Samantha Dean, tracked down many interviews...

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1. Understanding Richard Russo

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pp. 1-16

In the introduction to The Story Behind the Story (2004), an anthology of short fiction that includes authors’ explanations of how their stories came about, Richard Russo recalls the countless times he has been asked if he thinks writing can be taught or if writers are just “born this way.”1 Such questioners, Russo posits, seem to be asking if some innate difference separates...

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2. Mohawk

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pp. 17-28

Richard Russo published his first novel, Mohawk, in 1986 while he was teaching in the English department at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Although he had already begun establishing himself as a talented writer, publishing stories such as “The Top of the Tree” (1981) in the Mid-American Review, “The Challenge Court” (1983) in Sonora Review, and...

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3. The Risk Pool

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pp. 29-43

Richard Russo’s second novel, The Risk Pool (1988), returns to the fictional town of Mohawk, New York, the setting of his first novel, a generation before the story told in Mohawk. The Risk Pool begins around the time of World War II and extends into the early 1980s. A number of characters and many settings featured in Mohawk reappear in this second novel, including...

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4. Nobody’s Fool

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pp. 44-55

Richard Russo has often professed his deep admiration for the broad canvases and large casts of long nineteenth-century novels, “because of their ambition, their wanting to see more of the world, their desire not just to look at the interior workings of a single character and situation.”1 This narrative ambition clearly surfaces in his third novel, Nobody’s Fool, which employs...

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5. Straight Man

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pp. 56-68

In a 1999 article for the New York Times magazine, Richard Russo explained that while on his Straight Man book tour, the most common question he encountered was how much he had exaggerated his portrayal of academic life. “By the end of the tour,” he recounted, “I had my deadpan response down pat: ‘What exaggeration?’ If the depiction of lunacy happens...

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6. Empire Falls

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pp. 69-80

When Richard Russo’s fans ask him how much of what he portrays in his books is actually true, he replies, “All of it. But some of it, I made up.”1 In the case of Empire Falls (2001), his fifth novel and the winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the author certainly draws on truths from his own childhood in Gloversville, New York; his experiences living in Waterville, a...

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7. Bridge of Sighs

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pp. 81-93

“It generally takes me four or five years to write a novel; this one took longer,” explained Richard Russo in a 2007 interview, shortly after his sixth and longest novel to date, Bridge of Sighs, was released. “I spent six years, every day, with Lucy and Sarah and Noonan and the other characters in Bridge. Love is not too strong a word for the relationships that developed.”1 The...

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8. That Old Cape Magic

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pp. 94-105

That Old Cape Magic (2009), Russo’s seventh novel, recounts the tragicomic story of Jack Griffin, a screenwriter and college professor, whose marriage nearly falls apart due to his inability to make peace with the memory of his difficult (although hilariously portrayed) parents. The novel is divided into two halves, each of which is anchored by a wedding scene. In part 1 Jack’s...

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9. Other Works

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pp. 106-126

As of 2014 Richard Russo’s output is dominated by his seven novels, but to that total must be added two collections of short fiction, The Whore’s Child and Other Stories (2002) and Interventions: A Novella & Three Stories (2012); a memoir, Elsewhere (2012); a novella, Nate in Venice (2013); and a large assortment of short nonfiction pieces that he has contributed to various...


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pp. 127-132

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 133-138


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pp. 139-142

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About the Author

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Kathleen Drowne is an associate professor of American literature at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla. She is the author or coauthor of several books, including Spirits of Defiance: National Prohibition and Jazz Age Literature, 1920–1930 and The 1920s: American Popular...

E-ISBN-13: 9781611174038
E-ISBN-10: 1611174031
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611174021

Page Count: 160
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Understanding Contemporary American Literature