Richard Russo likes big, sprawling nineteenth-century novels told from the omniscient point of view, so it should come as no surprise that in The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers and Life he includes chapters on Dickens and Twain and one entitled “What Frogs Think: A Defense of Omniscience.” Russo has a famous and wicked sense of humor, but he’s also engaged with sentiment and its essential sister, empathy. The same qualities translate in filmed versions of Russo’s works, like those great Paul Newman vehicles Nobody’s Fool and Empire Falls, the HBO series that also starred Ed Harris, Helen Hunt, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Russo is sometimes categorized as a Faulkner of dying upper-New England mill towns, and his imagination is capacious enough to fill those big shoes. But the characters in last year’s four-story collection Trajectory fall outside the world of his usual blue-collar heroes. Here failed or failing academics mix with businessmen and a tired novelist to broaden his American palette. The last story even has a plot that must have been informed by Russo’s work with Newman and the movies.
In The Destiny Thief Russo gives a clear look into his writing life (I hesitate to use “career,” because, despite his financial success, he seems called to his art in the old-fashioned Romantic way). Just about all these essays will be a pleasure to Russo’s readers, and in the details of his life a young writer can find a different kind of map through education and commitment to immersion in the art. Though Russo is one of our wonderful comic writers, he is beautifully serious about his art: “What art demands of us has remained constant down through the centuries–that we slow down, observe, contemplate, court quiet, practice stillness, live as if we have all the time in the world, knowing full well that we don’t.”
Local readers might be particularly drawn to the last essay, “The Boss in Bulgaria,” where the author describes a writers’ conference founded by former Ann Arborite Elizabeth Kostova. Some of it is certainly funny, but Russo takes all of the writers very seriously. And when Bulgarian television teams him with the lyrics of Bruce Spring-steen, Russo’s favorite American songwriter, the essay and the writer transcend their medium. That essay alone is worth the price of the book.
Richard Russo reads from Trajectory and The Destiny Thief at Literati on June 6