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Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Risk Pool

Richard Russo's second novel at times reads more like a memoir than a work of fiction. That's a testament to how wonderfully complex and life-like Russo's characters are. Russo tells the story of his narrator from the first person, and so well that you can forget that there is an author directing the scene.

The narrator, Ned Hall, has the type of dysfunctional family life that must appeal to modern readers, if the non-fiction bestseller lists are any indication. His parents are separated because his father is an immature and irresponsible man-about-town. But Sam Hall takes offense, and spends years bothering Ned's mother, eventually leading her to have a nervous breakdown. With nowhere else to go Ned moves in to his father's apartment, which just happens to be across the street from his father's favorite bar.

The bulk of the novel deals with Ned's relationship with his father as he begins to grow fond of the man despite his mother's warnings and the man's own atrocious behavior. Russo masterfully depicts the underlying charm of Sam Hall, and gradually the reader understands why the man has made so many friends and earned the love of his son.

Like any Russo novel there are dozens of supporting characters of varying importance but all are drawn in a life-like manner no matter how quickly. In The Risk Pool these include a disillusioned heiress and Ned's first love, Sam's waitress girfriend and her son, a muscle-bound proto-Marxist out to harm the town's wealthy few, and a love-struck lawyer intent on marrying Ned's mother as soon as he can get her far enough away from Sam. There are also an innumerable quantity of drinking buddies, and in passages in the town bars Russo shows his uncanny ability to mimic the speech patterns of drunks worldwide, the boastfulness, the crudity, and the fear to be anywhere near their wives. Russo is able to introduce a character's personality through dialogue or habits unlike any writer I've read besides (and this is one of those comparisons that people don't believe, but it's true) Charles Dickens.

Plot takes a slight backseat in every Russo novel I've read (this is my fifth, not including a book of short stories.) The focus is so strongly on the characters and you get the sense that Russo would rather just let you roam around in their world for awhile. But things have to happen, and Russo ably creates memorable set-pieces, including quite a few automobile accidents (the title comes from the fact that Sam Hall can only buy insurance from the risk pool due to his many accidents) and a few bar-fights, especially between Sam and his girlfriend's son.

The Risk Pool is a genuinely funny novel which movingly explores family relationships in an understanding and sympathetic way. It is nothing more than a happy coincidence that I happen to finish this novel just as a new Russo novel is released, but I am pleased that I am not any closer to being finished with his body of work than I was when I started this book. I hope he keeps writing books, because I plan to keep reading them, and I won't like when there aren't any more to pick up.

Next? I'm not going to dive into Russo's new one just yet. I've got Downtown Owl by culture-critic Chuck Klosterman and Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien both sitting on my shelf.

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