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The Risk Pool

4.04  ·  Rating details ·  6,359 ratings  ·  459 reviews
A wonderfully fun and perceptive novel in the traditions of Thornton Wilder and Anne Tyler, The Risk Pool is set in Mohawk, New York, where Ned Hall is doing his best to grow up, even though neither of his estranged parents can properly be called adult.

His father, Sam, cultivates bad habits so assiduously that he is stuck at the bottom of his auto insurance risk pool. His
Paperback, 479 pages
Published April 12th 1994 by Vintage (first published 1988)
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Average rating 4.04  · 
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 ·  6,359 ratings  ·  459 reviews

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Nov 22, 2014 rated it really liked it
All the other Russo books I've read have been written from the perspective of an adult male, and usually heavily influenced by their mothers, set in some downtrodden small town in Upstate New York.  In "The Risk Pool", Ned is a boy when he begins his narration, living with his mother, while his unreliable father Sam is more or less out of the picture. When he is in the picture, it's an ugly one, so Ned knows he should avoid  the guy at all costs, despite his innate curiosity about him.  Then his ...more
Paul Bryant
Jun 29, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: novels
1) This is like a very gentle version of the way the British sergeant-major explained how he lectures his troops :

"First I tells 'em what I'm going to tell 'em. Then I tells 'em. Then I tells 'em what I told 'em."

Because Richard Russo's middle name is Repetition. His full name is Richard Repetition Russo. Now I'm doing it. Must be catching. How many times were we told that the protagonist's father had a blackened thumb and forefinger? At least once every five pages. How many times did the father
Jan 02, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
i've decided richard russo is like u2 -- all his stuff sounds pretty much the same, but it's terrific, so i don't care.

the usual is all in evidence:
- lol-inducing humor
- affectionate brutal treatment of small-town folk and life (perfect internal echo: Sam constantly cuffing his son on the head to show how much he loves him)
- palpable rage against the socioeconomic forces and big business that slowly destroy his intimately beloved type of biosphere
- characters you feel you'd know at a 100 pace
J.K. Grice
Oct 11, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
THE RISK POOL started my love affair with the extraordinary Richard Russo. He is definitely an American master.
Aug 15, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It's true that for me a big part of this book's allure is how well I know these characters. I mean, really know them. But whether or not you relate to the characters from the start, by the end you will at least empathize with them. Russo draws each role so clearly with the requisite anecdotal background that brings them into focus. But his true talent is dialogue. Anyone who's spent time in back-woods, homegrown bars will have heard these conversations before - though perhaps not specifically or ...more
Tom Brennan
A brilliant novel, the impact of which is only fully appreciated in the finishing of it. Part coming of age story, part meditation on familial ties and similarities between parents and children, and part documentary about the decay of a small New York town, Russo weaves these disparate threads into a unique tapestry showing the lives of quiet desperation lived by the inhabitants of Mohawk, NY. Ned Hall opens the novel by relating the tale of his parents' courtship and quick marriage just prior t ...more
Mar 15, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I always feel like kind of sucker for enjoying Richard Russo novels as much as I do--he plays the "looking back on your life, wistfully" card to the hilt--but whatever: the guy can tell a long, mostly uneventful story about vaguely interesting men with the best of them, and in Risk Pool, his second novel, from 1988, he again had me totally engaged, chuckling out loud, getting a bit teary-eyed, all of it. Risk Pool takes place in fictional Mohawk, New York, a dreary post-industrial town full of b ...more
Mike Gilbert
Oct 21, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: literature
This is probably my favorite Russo book. Granted, I have only read three, but between Empire Falls, That Old Cape Magic, and The Risk Pool, this one really stands out.

I live in upstate New York, quite a bit further west than the Mohawk Valley, but its close enough put pictures of Leroy or Olean in my mind when the once flourishing now dilapidated town is described. And although my life was nothing like that of Ned Hall's, I easily identified with the people in his life and the fears that he nur
Jun 27, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Absolutely haunting, addictive and baffling. I will now describe why, but wonder if it has the same effect on people who don't share my experiences in just such a book's setting.

What Russo has encapsulated here is the wordless sense of security and unconscious insularity, which is, miraculously, all at once combined with wordly understanding and maturity in some post-industrial underclass of upstate New York.

You are waltzed into a thriving empty tenement and cemented in place, because here in th
Chris Gager
Apr 22, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I took this with me to Mr. Russo's talk at the Bath Library last night. The talk was fun and interesting and I got his signature on the title page. Cool!

So, after two straight less-than-satisfying novel-reading experiences I needed to turn to an old reliable. RR is not exactly a friend, but I have actually spoken with him(see above). And .. I do like his writing - a lot. This is his second book - I think - and is very much based on his own life. His father, like the loser in the book was a rambl
Jul 21, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2009
Dear Richard Russo,

I love character-driven stories, and you write some of the best I've ever read. Does anything much happen in your stories? Not usually, and what does happen tends toward the quotidian. But the way you portray these events, and their effects on your wonderful characters, makes me so pleased. Because don't we all have some little experiences, those ones that happen almost every day, that make us who we are?

Good work. I'm sadly almost done with your back catalog now, but I'm exci
Diem Le
Jun 24, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Diem by: Mary
This is the novel Goldfinch wishes it was.

Richard Rosso can turn a phrase like no other, and the section in which Ned lives with his father is perfection: funny, clever, witty, AND substance, over and over and over again. This kind of writing is a true talent that is rarely found. So enjoyable that I tried to read through the section slowly in order to make it last. I would have given this book five stars (and I do not inflate grades!!), except the other sections are just not q
It took a long time to finish this book. The literature is good, the book moves pretty fast, the characters are all well etched and lovable, but I still took almost a month to finish this book. May be it is because I didn't want to finish it, leave the town of Mohawk, Ned's side as he eats his sandwich at The Elms, or wanted some more of Wussy talking to Sam's kid. Or may be because I wasn't ready to let go of Sam Hall himself, yet.

What a beautiful book this is, and I realized it only as I wipe
Jan 03, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Loved this book. Loved all of Russo's books and I loved this one too. Don't expect plot twists or surprises. That's not what you come looking for when you read Russo. What the man delivers are characters. Big ones. Big believable unpredictable characters who drive the novel forward by being themselves. To say nothing of Russo's writing which is so seamless and insightful, you almost forget you're reading. Russo never strays far from the settings and themes he feels most at home with - families, ...more
B the BookAddict
Nov 12, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: literary-fiction
I love all things Russo and this novel is no exception. Interesting, a good longish book that kept me entertained and involved.

The story of a boy growing up and his relationship with his early absentee father and the sad life of his agoraphobic mother. As with most Russo novels, set in a NY state town which is dying, this is a struggling family, an only child set in 1950s/60s. Full of Russo's superb literary skills although not very much of his usual wry humor. Russo writes small town story ext
Jul 20, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Russo’s bildungsroman, one of my favorite novels, takes a deep dive into a life and living I’ll never know otherwise. Mohawk, New York, where protagonist Ned Hall is eventually reacquainted with his alcoholic father Sam, is a tannery town hit hard by a withering economy and gloving industry that is all but extinct. The bars, the restaurants, the aging and decrepit streets are haunted by the working class, and Sam Hall is sort of their king. We see Ned reunited with his father after his mother ha ...more
Bill Krieger
Jan 31, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I loved this book! This review is a futile gesture. So, I'll lean on the default strategy of the writing-impaired: crappy stream of consciousness. (ha!)


“Trouble with you is,” my father told her, “you think you got the pussy market cornered.”
- Risk Pool, Richard Russo

Richard Russo's writing style is Goldilock's porridge... just right. The small, everyday things that happen are interesting. The huge, crazy plot twists are believable. The writing is smart. It's funny. Russo's writing style is a
Craig Monson
Jan 07, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
If it wasn’t decades since I read him and if I’d read more, I’d be tempted to say there’s something of Mark Twain in Russo’s novel. It tells the story of a boy growing up in a northern New England town on the skids, which has lost its bank and its movie house (think “The Last Picture Show”). It is populated by deftly characterized deadbeats, misfits, those recently gone on (or off) the dole, many with more wit and resourcefulness than cash: nobody, in other words, who might stand much chance of ...more
Mar 27, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Becky by: Mom
At first I just found this story interesting -- and wondered how I could like someone who is a jerk (the father, Sam). But by the end of the story, I realized how deep this book is on so many levels. (1) I thought the story was going to be about Ned and his mother (she raised him for the most part). But it wasn' was more about Ned and his father, and what a profound impact his father had on Ned's life, even though he wasn't around most of the time. (Don't let the fact that the book was wri ...more
Nov 07, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The more books I read by Richard Russo the more I associate him with a fine, expensive wine. With a wine such as that, you don’t gulp it all down at one time. You take your time and savor it. Such is my experience with The Risk Pool. I think the biggest fascination I have with Mr. Russo’s books is that they don’t really have an apparent storyline but more of a history of his character’s lives. This particular book was no different. His characters are deep messes. The same person you sniff at dur ...more
May 06, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
As I drove through Gloversville, N.Y., about five years ago, I saw a brick house that was being demolished. It appeared to have suffered a fire. Perhaps because it was close to the houses on either side, it was being knocked down manually, without heavy equipment. In the time that I drove by, I saw that a group of sturdy men were smashing away with sledgehammers, and all that remained of the house, perfectly free standing, was the front facade. As I passed by the front of the house, it looked li ...more
Sep 05, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Richard Russo is great. I've now read three of his novels and really enjoyed all of them. The characters stand out from the page, and I get lost so easily in the narrative. This book is a coming-of-age and beyond story about a boy/young man in an upstate New York town with two separated parents who are neglectful yet still loving in their own ways. Most interesting is watching how their relationships with their son shapes who he becomes. The focus is clearly on the father-son relationship, and t ...more
Scott Schneider
Jun 15, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I was always puzzled about the title of this book. What is it about? It refers to his father's assignment to the auto insurance risk pool but is really a larger metaphor for all those characters in the book living on the edge, barely getting by and down on their luck in these upstate NY towns abandoned by closing plants. The characters are wonderful. Each chapter is like a separate short story. This book, as all of his books, is filled with human stories and events and emotion. I'm glad I finall ...more
Feb 23, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
What an absolutely beautifully written book. The story is so well written that the reader is taken inside, becomes almost part of the story.

I really felt empathy for the narrator, whose story this is. He's just a shy, uncertain kid trying to make his way through life virtually alone. He has an absent father and what turns out to be a crazy mother. Along the way, Ned, the narrator, makes some pretty big mistakes, but in the end, he figures out life and his parents- in spite of their best efforts.
Sep 18, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
sure it's repetitive, with only a slender wisp of slow plot. but still. the atmosphere. the lovable drunks. the myopia. it's all so pleasing, catching all the ugly angles in a happy glow of "well, what now?" i've enjoyed better books less. there's very little i would change, granted the big red pen to do it. for me that's saying something.
Apr 29, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a really good book, but it's so dark and depressing that you sort of cringe as you go through it. The narrator, Ned Hall, is a bit of a mystery, even though he tells you about the depths of his life and his innermost thoughts. You don't know what he looks like, and you have no sense of what he'd be like if you met him. He probably wouldn't be overly friendly, as he says he's awkward and shy. But he spent so much time in bars with men shooting the breeze, that he could possibly be very ch ...more
Aug 26, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
My first Russo. This is exactly like making a list of the characteristics you want from the man you intend to marry and then you go ahead and marry and love to death the opposite type guy.
The books and authors I seem to like most are ones with great plots, diverse developing characters and brilliant clever writing - thats my list.
This book has a below average plot, full and rich characters going nowhere and not so academically speaking great writing.
But I loved it!
Russo gets small town. Hence
Chris Foley
Oct 12, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
My kind of story. Ordinary people just getting by. Maybe it's too much like real life. But I love it!
Chris Waterford
Nov 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Another reliable novel from this author written about small town America---always with an interesting cast of characters and situations.
Jul 19, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
With popular books like this one that have already been reviewed by a large number of readers (405 to be exact) I often like to read a sampling of what others have observed. This helps me to clarify what my own impressions of the book are. It also helps me determine if I might have anything different to offer than what has already been noted by others.

Those who rated this book as 1 or 2 stars (less than 3% of all raters) complained that it was ‘very slow,’ ‘boring,’ and/or ‘too long.’ As one re
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RICHARD RUSSO is the author of seven previous novels; two collections of stories; and Elsewhere, a memoir. In 2002 he received the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls, which like Nobody’s Fool was adapted to film, in a multiple-award-winning HBO miniseries.

Related Articles

In his first memoir, Elsewhere, the novelist writes about how his vivacious but volatile mother and his small hometown of Gloversville have shaped...
25 likes · 17 comments
“My mother had more than once remarked that my father was one of the war's casualties, that the Sam Hall who came back wasn't the one who left, the one she'd fallen in love with. I didn't doubt that she believed this certain truth, or even that it was true, after a fashion. But it was a nice way of ignoring another simple truth--that people changed, with or without wars, and that we sometimes don't know people as well as we think we do, that the worst errors in judgment often result from imagining we understand what has escaped us entirely.” 5 likes
“To weigh and evaluate a vast grid of information, much of it meaningless, and to arrive at sensible, if erroneous, conclusions, is a skill not to be sneezed at.” 4 likes
More quotes…