Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo
It took me about a week to get through all 549 pages of this novel and the truth is I considered quitting several times. I'm not sure what kept me going except that I quite liked one of the characters and wanted to know what would happen to her.
I'm trying to reconcile the book I read with all the reviews that refer to it as a hilarious comedy. I can see the humor in some of it but I found the whole story more sad than funny. It's a small town setting with ordinary people living ordinary lives and while that can be fertile ground for humor, most of the humor here is at the expense of other people. I know people say and do stupid things but I got tired of certain characters always being the butt of jokes. Not only was it repetitive, it was mean.
The cover of my copy has a picture of Paul Newman playing the lead character, Sully, and because I was always a fan of his it made me like Sully better than I would have otherwise. Even so, I didn't like him much. Maybe if I were to watch the movie I'd change my mind. He plays a 60 year old guy who has basically failed at everything in life: he has an ex-wife who hates him, a son he barely knows because Sully ignored him all the time he was growing up, a deceased father he enjoys despising, and a part-time girlfriend who is married to someone else. He doesn't have a steady job, he's rude to everyone and he drinks too much. He has moments of compassion for other people that make you think he's not so bad but then he does something so completely outrageous and thoughtless of others and their welfare that it's hard not to just write him off as a jerk. I can see though how he could be made into a sort of lovable character in a movie if some of the more ugly displays of selfishness were left out.
I think my biggest problem with Sully is not that he behaves like an idiot - we all behave like idiots at times - but that he never seems to learn anything from his colossal mistakes. He knows he's screwing up, but he never decides to improve. He never sets a goal to change his behavior or become a better person. He's sixty years old, still acting like a spoiled teenager and quite willing to accept that that's the way it has to be. Had the book been shorter I might have found it funnier, but 549 pages of this guy making the same mistakes over and over got monotonous.
There were characters I liked, but only two or three and they weren't enough to make me really enjoy the story. I did think it was interesting the way the story was written. It was almost like hearing it told by someone in a small town - unhurried, with a few sentences told about a situation, then veering off onto a side trail about the people involved or a bit of history related to the story, then back to it, then veering off again. I like small towns, small town people, and small town stories told that way.
I'm still a little confused about the ending. There's a moment when Sully's landlady, an elderly woman who used to be his eighth grade teacher, looks at him and see's in him a man who is "much harder and more dangerous" than she has ever known him to be. The moment passes and things return to normal. I don't understand what the reader is supposed to take from this. Is it a warning? Why wait till the very end of the novel to throw it in? All along we are led to believe that under all of Sully's immaturity and foolishness there's a good heart. Are we meant to think otherwise now? I believed right until the very end that Sully was especially fond of his landlady and would always do whatever he could for her. Now I don't know. Whatever the author's intention, I found it an unsatisfactory, and slightly creepy, way to end the novel.