NEW YORK, May 13 — Few authors do male vulnerability as well as Richard Russo. Even his rascals you want to wrap in tissue paper for safekeeping. (Well, not all of them. But most.) He may be renowned for his cuddly rogues, but he also specialises in their opposites — unentitled men who are unassuming and hopeless around women and rumbling with uncertainty. Russo is the troubadour of self-deprecation.
You want a typical Russo beta male? Here’s an example: Nate, an English professor who’s been whisked out of his university with a broom, and not under pleasant circumstances. “He wonders if people actually see him differently now, or if he’s just seeing himself differently,” Russo writes. “Maybe it’s his own low self-esteem that people are picking up on, self-recrimination his new default mode.”
Nate is the protagonist of Voice, one of the quartet of thoughtful, soulful stories that make up Russo’s new collection, Trajectory. Three of them originally appeared elsewhere; one, Milton and Marcus, is new, and it’s such a tart, dishy portrait of a famous Hollywood actor that it’s a wonder that it isn’t being served at Spago.
The stories in Trajectory are a guided tour through the author’s preoccupations: the follies of academia. (Fighting words, but I’d pit Russo’s Straight Man against any of the novels in David Lodge’s Campus Trilogy.) The disappointments of midlife. (A theme in virtually every Russo novel, but if you’re new in these parts, grab The Risk Pool or Nobody’s Fool or Empire Falls; the last one earned the Pulitzer Prize in 2002.) How marriage devolves into a two-headed Kabuki drama. How children recapitulate the mistakes of their parents. And, most notably — most persistently in this collection — how the world neatly divides into those who believe they are special, and those who do not.
The egos of all the main characters in Trajectory fall on the invisible ends of the electromagnetic spectrum. At some point, each of these characters collides with another whose self-regard is of a far more vivid hue.
In Voice, Nate has to endure the mockery of his slick older brother, who repeatedly describes Nate’s fragile state with an adjective that’s as vulgar as it is emasculating. In “Horseman,” a smug frat boy tells his professor, “Don’t hold back,” as she contemplates how to punish him for plagiarism. (“How brash men are, she told herself. How controlled, even in defeat.”) In “Intervention,” a real estate agent in Maine listens, somewhat incredulously, as a client tells him that she always believed it when her father told her that she was special. (Only recently has she concluded otherwise.) The idea is foreign to the agent, who, even after receiving a cancer diagnosis, never got angry or succumbed to self-pity. “He’d simply concluded,” Russo writes, “that he wasn’t special.”
But the real revelation in Trajectory is Milton and Marcus, the story of a down-on-his-luck novelist and sometime screenwriter who’s summoned to the home of a legendary actor named William Nolan.
To be clear: Richard Russo is not down on his luck. And I hope — pray — that his wife is not, and has never been, as ill as the narrator’s is here. But Russo has written and doctored a number of screenplays before, including an adaptation of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. One of the two stars of that film was Robert Redford.
There’s really no question that Russo’s William Nolan character is based on Redford.
Nolan insists on being called “Regular Bill.” (People call Redford “Ordinary Bob,” a holdover from his Ordinary People days.) Nolan’s place is in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. (Sundance, Jackson Hole; tomayto, tomahto.) Nolan is 15 years older than the author. (Redford is 13 years older than Russo; close enough). Nolan made a series of buddy movies with another actor, now dead, “the first and best about two Depression-era con artists.”
The guy is about as well disguised as Inspector Clouseau.
Milton and Marcus also features a brief and affectionate cameo of a character who is clearly Paul Newman, with whom Russo collaborated three times. Nolan is not imbued with nearly the same affection. He comes across as a secret cheapskate and overt narcissist, a man who’s shrewdly selective about dialling up his sincerity, which itself is a mask for ruthlessness.
Don’t let the wickedness of Milton and Marcus fool you. It happens to be the most beautiful story in the book. And how much of it is true is beside the point. What matters is how it reflects the larger themes of Russo’s work. Jackson Hole is the ultimate foil to the decaying mill towns of Russo’s novels, and actors the ultimate foils to the low-esteem schlubs Russo writes about so well.
“More than their beauty, wealth and talent,” the narrator observes, “we envied their moral freedom, their ability to trade up and up again, while avoiding the consequences of doing so.”
Boy, do these people believe they are special.
Russo’s insight into the differences between Redford’s and Newman’s styles is also one of the best snippets of film criticism you’ll read this year. Newman — here referred to as “Wendy” — was a risk-taker and emotional anarchist, playing characters who either screwed up or “got sucker punched by circumstance and had to take a standing eight count.” Whereas Redford — “Regular Bill” — is an emotional conservative, “the reliable, competent American Everyman, the Nick Carraway who would never understand or accept or like himself half as much as Gatsby did.”
Now reconsider all the Newman and Redford films you’ve watched with this in mind. Reconsider Russo’s novels, while you’re at it. The author may as well be describing the two male archetypes that dominate his fiction.
Unfortunately, Nolan could be an Everyman only on-screen. “Ironically, it was in real life that being “regular” had become unattainable,” the narrator concludes. Regular Bill disappears into the sunset by the story’s end, presumably to continue with his charmed, bespoke life. But the narrator — a genuine Everyman and substitute for so many of us — will go on to face a reality far more brutal and complicated. It will abruptly break your heart. That’s what Richard Russo does, without pretension or fuss, time and time again.
Trajectory: Stories by Richard Russo; 243 pages; Alfred A. Knopf; US$25.95 (RM112.60). — The New York Times