Four brief but potent and surprising tales of midlife crises from the ever dependable Russo (Everybody’s Fool, 2016, etc.).
The main characters in each of these stories are accomplished people who are thrust into what initially seem like modest predicaments. The professor in “Horseman” is dealing with a plagiarizing student; the professor in “Voice” is squabbling with his brother on a vacation in Italy; the real estate agent in “Intervention” is having a hard time moving a hoarder’s home; and the novelist in “Milton and Marcus” is wary of the producers asking him to revisit a screenplay he sketched out years before. But with a keen eye for detail, dashes of humor, and a knack for bouncing his characters’ presents against their pasts, Russo makes these stories robust studies about the regrets they’ve picked up over the years. In “Voice,” the longest and best of this batch, the professor’s estrangement from his brother stokes memories of a recent scandal over his treatment of a closed-off student, which in turn influences his careful flirtation with a woman in his tour group. For the professor in “Horseman,” the bad student is a prompt for her to consider whether her professional coolness has served her well either in academia or her home life. As ever, Russo is superb at finding spots of comedy in these situations. The hoarder’s home has “an espresso machine the size of a snowmobile”; the frustrated screenwriter thinks, “a smart man would’ve left it right there, but he didn’t seem to be around.” This gives the four stories a peculiar sameness; the narration shares a melancholy/buoyant tone regardless of setting. But the autumnal mood fits for these tales of reckonings, and Russo rarely wastes a word, interweaving details and dialogue into master classes on storytelling.
“Some writers have less fuel in the tank than others,” one of his characters laments, but Russo himself is chugging along just fine.