Chantal's Reviews > Nobody's Fool

Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo
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Sep 17, 2010

really liked it

Richard Russo is often praised for his ability to capture the typical blue-collar town on paper, “to chronicle with insight and compassion the day-to-day life of small town America.” (Houston Chronicle) He does this in Nobody’s Fool by masterfully manipulating points of view to depict/expose his characters from the inside out. Donald Sullivan (Sully), Russo’s main character -- a sixty-year old man with a failing knee, commitment issues, pensions for both drinking and fighting, a heart of gold and a streak of miserable fortune -- embodies Bath. In knowing him, the reader knows Bath, knows small town America.
Nobody’s Fool opens in a third person omniscient point of view with a broad description of the town: “Upper Main Street in the village of North Bath, just above the town’s two-block-long district, was quietly residential….” With his second sentence Russo brings his reader even closer, to capture his setting:
The houses that bordered Upper Main, as the locals referred to it – although Main, from it’s lower end at the Sans Souci, was less than a quarter mile – were mostly dinosaurs, big aging clapboard Victorians and sprawling Greek Revivals that would have been worth money if they were across the border in Vermont and if they had not been built as, or converted into, two- and occasionally three-family dwellings and rented out over several decades, as slowly deteriorating flats.

As if narrowing the lens of a camera, Russo guides his reader through the town’s streets and deeper into the story until, at page three, the reader has arrived in Miss Beryl’s front room to look out the window with this old lady. And being thoroughly aware of what she sees (Russo’s done an excellent job of description), the reader takes no objection to suddenly being aware of Miss Beryl’s inner thoughts, as well. What makes this first shift in point of view masterful is Russo’s slight of hand: nary are we aware of the shift before Miss Beryl has distracted us with her intelligent wit and eccentric charm: “There’s also a word in English, Miss Beryl had pointed out. Snail. Probably horse doo had a name in French also, but that didn’t mean God intended for you to eat it.”
Shortly hereafter, we meet Sully, Miss Beryl’s tenant. Through Miss Beryl’s eyes we learn that Sully “…was a careless man… without ever meaning to be …And therefore dangerous.” We also witness Sully’s good-natured ribbing of his landlord. We learn that she was his eighth-grade teacher, he checks on her daily, he shovels her walk and he is her ally. We know all of this of him before, on page twenty-five, Russo again shifts the point of view to give us Sully from the inside out: “The first thing Sully saw when he stepped outside….”
The remaining story is told predominantly from the perspectives of these two characters, with the exception of the odd line or short paragraph told from the points of view of various minor characters. These sporadic shifts in points of view, generally, inform the reader of either Sully or Miss Beryl in a way that neither could for the other. For instance, Russo lends the point of view to Rub, Sully’s best friend, in order to cast a different light on Miss Beryl – one that neither Sully nor Miss Beryl could accurately shed, but one that is truer to the town’s impression of her: “Whenever Rub saw her, his eyes got small and hard, his voice edgy and scared, as if he imagined that Miss Beryl were still capable of wielding absolute power over him.” This image of Miss Beryl becomes crucial to the reader’s understanding of her personal conflict and her relationship with her son.
Russo’s expertly crafted shifts in points of view lend the reader an understanding of the story’s characters and their relationships, and, while it is the characters and relationships that sit at the heart of this story, it is also the people and relationships that sit at the heart of any town. In laying his characters and their relationships bare from multiple view points, Russo lays bare the town of Bath, and small town America.
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