The Pulitzer Prize–winning author takes a break from fiction.
After three decades and a dozen works of fiction, Russo (Trajectory, 2017, etc.) offers up this splendid collection of essays. Some were previously published, and one was spoken: a charming commencement speech highlighting “Russo’s Rules for a Good Life.” These are wise, personal pieces, and readers get to know the author as a comforting, funny, and welcoming guy. These admirable qualities are most prevalent in “Imagining Jenny,” published as an afterword to Jennifer Finney Boylan’s popular 2003 memoir, She’s Not There, about her sex reassignment surgery. Jim Boylan was Russo’s close friend and a fellow college professor at Colby. At first, writes the author, “I missed my old pal Jim and wanted him…back again.” But he came to understand and appreciate what his friend was going through, and he creates a tender, affectionate, “great love story.” The rest of the essays focus on writers. Russo expertly resuscitates Dickens’ Pickwick Papers for new readers as he explores "the spectacle of genius recognizing itself.” He’s also insightful about Twain’s nonfiction, which offered up new opportunities for the “inspired, indeed unparalleled, bullshitter” who later became the “compassionate, broad-minded and fatherly” author of Huckleberry Finn. Along the way, we learn about some of Russo’s other favorite writers, including Raymond Chandler, John Steinbeck, and Flannery O’Connor, and musicians: Springsteen, Dylan, Grace Slick. The longest piece, “Getting Good,” is a pep talk about the road the author took to become a successful writer, while the title essay argues for writers going home again in order to find the right tone for their writing. “The Gravestone and the Commode” is a riff on the importance of humor in life and literature: “The best humor has always resided in the chamber next to the one occupied by suffering.”
The only weakness with this book is the length. Please, sir, may we have some more?