I was holding my breath when I cracked open Richard Russo's new novel, Everybody's Fool.
It's a sequel to his 1993 book, Nobody's Fool, which — putting aside book-critic dignity here — I simply adored. For me, it was one of those novels that you don't want to stop reading, but as you near the end you force yourself to put down for a while, just so you can prolong the pleasure of living inside it.
Set in the dumpy upstate New York town of Bath, Nobody's Fool boasted a cast of con men, lost souls and losers whom Russo obviously dearly loved, and he made the reader love them, too. Chief among them was Donald Sullivan, known as Sully, a man of late middle age and few prospects known as much for his bad luck as for his bluff charm. (In the faithful 1994 film version, Paul Newman played Sully and was nominated for an Oscar for the best performance of the crotchety-old-charmer phase of his career.)
Russo has waited for 23 years to return to those characters, publishing six other books and winning a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for Empire Falls in the meantime. Those books were all terrific, but Nobody's Fool still had a place in my heart. I was holding my breath for fear Everybody's Fool wouldn't live up to its predecessor, but I shouldn't have worried. As good as Russo was in 1993, he's even better now. And Everybody's Fool is a delight.
It picks up in the 1990s about a decade after Nobody's Fool ended, back in Bath, which is still not flourishing. The novel opens with a hilarious extended scene at the graveside service of a local judge — which might not sound funny, but Russo is such a gifted comic novelist that it, and far more disastrous scenes to come, crackle with wit.
We see that scene from the point of view of Douglas Raymer, the police officer Sully so satisfyingly punched in Nobody's Fool. Ten years later, he's Bath's chief of police; he's also still reeling from the accidental death a year before of his wife, Becka.
The devastation of Becka's death was complicated for Raymer by finding a note from her saying she was about to leave him for another, unnamed man — an affair Raymer had no clue about before she died. Now, at the judge's funeral, he's obsessed with a garage door opener he found hidden in Becka's car, which doesn't open their home's garage.
"One of the more serious obstacles to small-town adultery was the problem of what to do with your car," Russo writes. "If you left it out at the curb, they'd see it and maybe recognize your car. You could leave it a couple blocks away, but people would still conclude you were having an affair; they'd just be wrong about who you were having it with." If he can find the garage the gadget opens, Raymer reasons, he'll find Becka's lover — although he's not sure what he'll do then.
The funeral ends with Raymer fainting into the open grave, but that's just the start of a day that will get much worse, with everything from a collapsed building to an escaped cobra for him to deal with.
Everybody's Fool takes place over only a couple of days, with Raymer sharing main-character status with Sully. In fact, although he features in a number of flashbacks that bring the reader up to speed on the last 10 years, Sully himself doesn't appear in the present action until about a third of the way into the novel.
He's 70 now and not quite so rambunctious as he once was, but the main change in his life is that his luck has turned. Not only has he finally won the off-track betting trifecta he played fruitlessly for years — twice — but when his landlady and former teacher Beryl Peoples, a formidable presence in Nobody's Fool, died, he inherited her house; he even got an unexpected financial bonus from his long-dead, abusive father.
Relieved of the economic necessity to scramble for odd jobs (except for the many he does, unpaid, as favors), he has had time to mend his relationship with his son, Peter, and enjoy time with grandson Will. Once a fearful child whom Sully helped by giving him a treasured old stopwatch to time himself being brave for at least a few minutes, Will is now a confident kid about to go off to college.
Sully's longtime affair with Ruth, owner of the local diner, has transformed into an enduring friendship, and he's even become friends with her husband, Zack. Thanks to Sully, his sad-sack sidekick, Rub Squeers, has a steady job. He still takes pleasure in teasing Rub, though — having acquired a stray dog, Sully named it Rub, too, "and settled in to enjoy the resulting confusion."
But now, although he has told no one about it, Sully's luck has run out. He has heart disease and needs surgery; without it, the doctors tell him, he has a year, maybe two.
Other characters return as well: Ruth's daughter Janey, who has her mother's take-no-bull attitude, and timid granddaughter Tina, as well as Janey's ex-con ex-husband, small-town sociopath Roy Purdy, who is worse news than ever.
Most vivid among the new characters are Charice Bond, one of Raymer's officers and a tart-tongued but supportive friend, and her brother, Jerome, a city official in nearby Schuyler Springs whom Raymer fears is after his job.
In the novel's two-day time span, there will be enough bizarre events, startling revelations, unlikely heroes and touching moments to supply a dozen small towns. Although Everybody's Fool, like all of Russo's fiction, is driven by engaging and believable characters, he is also a master of plotting, from cliffhangers to twists that deftly link apparently unrelated threads. This book's tone is largely comic, but Russo writes with uncommon insight about love, families and friendship.
"At seventy," Russo writes, "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." But he has a little left in him, it turns out, and readers can be glad he does.
Contact Colette Bancroft at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.