Among his many other qualities, Richard Russo is our contemporary master of the fictional small town, and particularly of the small-town diner. His novels, though set in small places, are big and sprawling, in the best sense. They involve lots of characters of all generations; his characters come from all the different classes that make up any place (although he is obviously much more sympathetic to the working poor); the novels move easily into earlier moments to give us the necessary backstories; they can make you laugh out loud in one chapter and overwhelm you with tragedy in the next. But to my mind the best moments in Russo’s best books always happen in a diner, the wonderfully friendly and fast-disappearing “greasy spoon” — the place where you could get eggs, bacon, and hash browns rather than a latte and a croissant. You remember.

When Russo’s novel Nobody’s Fool was turned into a movie in 1994, the diner that was the center of the best conversation almost disappeared. It was still a pretty interesting film. Paul Newman was wonderful as the crotchety self-employed Sully Sullivan, hobbling his way into old age and learning, finally, to assume the responsibilities that he had — in an unforgettably lovable way — avoided for most of his life. The late Jessica Tandy, in her last major role, appeared as Sully’s landlady. Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith played supporting roles, and a young Philip Seymour Hoffman had a bit part as a local cop. If you look closely, you can already see the actor who would prove a master in his portrayal of Truman Capote last year. There is a great last scene in the movie, an exact adaptation of the novel, where Newman/Sully, physically exhausted, falls asleep before he has finished taking off his boots, a small but contented smile lighting his worn face.

All of this is lovely. But Hattie’s Diner, the spiritual center of the novel, has almost disappeared from the film, reduced to part of the scenery, and the loss almost ruined the film for me. I have the sense that Russo himself felt that: when he came to write his own adaptation of Empire Falls for Fred Schepisi’s 2005 HBO film, he kept the diner front and center. The main protagonist is the manager of the Empire Grill (which concedes to the new expectations to the extent of serving ethnic food on weekends), so it would be hard to avoid the place. But the added length of an HBO film (almost 200 minutes) allows Russo and Schepisi to make a movie around all the wonderful and often wacky conversation that happens in the diner over weak coffee and doughnuts. If you’ve seen the movie — and if you haven’t, go rent it! — you’ll likely remember its surprising yet tragically inevitable ending. But for me the film, like the novel, is most memorable for the way it preserved the disappearing American small-town diner, where I had the best, though possibly unhealthiest, breakfasts of my life.

Richard Russo will be at the Ann Arbor Book Festival on Saturday, May 13, to discuss how fiction gets transformed into film.

[Review published May 2006]