Readers who loved such a roomy, generously plotted, and detailed novel the Pulitzer-winning Empire Falls (2001) won’t be able to resist this first collection of seven stories by the Maine novelist.
Most of the stories are closely akin to Russo’s longer fiction, especially “The Farther You Go,” which shows a slightly harsher side of hangdog college prof Hank Devereaux, the engaging protagonist of Straight Man (1997)—from which it is perhaps a discarded chapter? Crises peculiar to middle age and bereavement are compassionately explored in tales about a widowed filmmaker’s tardy realization of what his late wife had meant to him (“Monhegan Light”); and a retired academic biographer’s disturbingly personal discovery that it is “foolish and arrogant to think you could imagine the truth of another human life” (“Buoyancy”). Russo is at his best in the beautifully developed title story, in which a nun’s accidental grasp of the truth about her childhood functions as epiphany also for her divorced creative-writing teacher. And he’s unrivaled by any writer since the early Salinger at striking to the heart of childhood-becoming-adolescence: in the novella-length history of an introspective ten-year-old (“The Mysteries of Linwood Hart”) slowly, painstakingly maturing out of his suspicion that the world revolves around him; and in the superb “Joy Ride.” The latter records the experiences and observations of a preadolescent embryonic delinquent whose impulsive mother snatches him away from deeper trouble, their Maine hometown, and her eccentric underachiever of a husband, for a brief, perilous vacation from domesticity and responsibility. It’s a wonderful distillation of Russo’s gifts for crystal-clear narration, subtle character portrayal, and irrepressible humor, and is capped by a tonally perfect bittersweet conclusion.
There may be more important writers around, but none is more likable, or more dependably entertaining and rewarding, than Russo.