‘Who’s to blame for the loss of jobs?’: novelist Richard Russo on Trump, Paul Newman and small-town America

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author is known for his classic accounts of small-town America. Back with a new book, what would his characters think of Donald Trump?

Novelist Richard Russo, left, enjoyed Paul Newman’s realisation of his anti-hero Donald ‘Sully’ Sullivan. Courtesy Whitney Hayward / Portland Press Herald via Getty Images.
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"Everything ached except my hand. It was the only thing that was moving for 22 hours." Richard Russo, the award-winning American novelist and screenwriter, is recalling what happens when your publisher asks you to sign 9,000 copies of your new book, Everybody's Fool. Russo completed the task at Random House's distribution centre in Maryland, United States, then watched as Everybody's Fool was packed into crates.

"It reminded me of the final scene in the Indiana Jones movie where they put the ark into boxes in a room as big as the world."

Russo laughs, as he frequently does, uproariously. How did he feel watching three years of work being boxed up? “Small.” More loud laughter. “You think, what have I wrought here?”

Richard Russo has been wondering what he has wrought for 30 years now. His debut, Mohawk, was published in 1986, and set out Russo's stall as the Charles Dickens of small-town American life, most often in versions of upstate New York where Russo grew up. He was raised in Gloversville, once the US glove-making capital but now a shadow of its former prosperous self. Russo's fiction may narrate the resulting disappointments of working-class life but his prose is vibrantly comic in the social realist tradition of his hero, Mark Twain. His most famous novel remains his epic account of provincial life, Empire Falls, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002: "The gift that keeps on giving, as my editor calls it," Russo notes. Later adapted for television by HBO, the series starred Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Ed Harris and Philip Seymour Hoffman (both Newman and Hoffman have since passed away.)

Arguably Russo's most cherished book, however, is 1993's Nobody's Fool. Set in the fictional town of North Bath, we follow the adventures of Donald "Sully" Sullivan, an ageing odd-job man and rascal who charms his way into and out of trouble: an affair with Ruth who owns the local diner; an uneasy détente with Peter, his upwardly mobile academic son; a respectful, affectionate relationship with his no-nonsense landlord, Miss Beryl; and constant antagonism with his nemesis, police officer Douglas Raymer. Affection for the book was enhanced, as Russo acknowledges, by a wonderful film, also starring Newman (who was nominated for an Oscar), ably supported by Bruce Willis and, again, Hoffman.

As the title of Everybody's Fool hints, Russo has now written a sequel which revisits the leading cast who are older but not necessarily richer. Sully has money and a house (left to him by Miss Beryl) but also a life-threatening illness. The show is all-but-stolen by Raymer, who falls in love, is obsessed with garage doors and suffers an unfortunate turn at a funeral.

Russo retains great affection for his entire cast, but is really speaking about the sarcastic, roguish Sully. “Sully was based on my father. It didn’t dawn on me that I had been missing his company. Suddenly there I was, laughing at and with my old man, and discovering that he had more to tell me after all these years.”

Further inspiration was drawn from Newman. “I don’t really own Sully anymore, or not completely. Once Newman played that character he is now a part-owner.”

Russo's relationship with Newman grew over three different collaborations: Empire Falls, Nobody's Fool and a (non-vampire) thriller, Twilight. "Newman loved writers. One of the first phone calls I got after the Pulitzer was from Paul. Every time a book of mine would come out I would always get a call. Younger people and people that he liked he called 'Hotshot'. He would never bother with 'hello' or my name. Just 'Hotshot'."

What does Russo think drew Newman to Sully? "I don't want to sound like an amateur psychologist," he says carefully. "I think Paul became a different actor after his son died. That loss made him understand Sully and Max in Empire Falls. I think he was basically a hopeful guy but he understood about people making mistakes. That they might, through really hard work, make up for what is troubling them."

Russo's own relationship with Sully changed significantly between 1993 and 2016. In Nobody's Fool, Sully is an errant father figure for Russo's alter ego: Peter, the reluctant academic whose marriage (unlike Russo's own) was in crisis. By Everybody's Fool, Russo had grown closer to Sully himself.

“I am a grandfather,” he says, with some disbelief. “At 67, I am trying to understand what has happened to me. The figure in the carpet wasn’t at all clear 20 years ago. Now I am beginning to see the arc of my life. I find myself looking backwards as much as forwards.”

I ask if he has gleaned any wisdom? “All the things that I cherish most are the results of some of the stupidest things I and other people could have conceivably done.” The prime example is his mother’s life-changing decision to leave Gloversville when Russo was 18 and move to Arizona. Divorced from Russo’s father, she was nearly 50 and chronically dissatisfied. “She was so desperate to have something like a life, a romantic life among other things.”

So, she told “an incredible, desperate lie that she had a job in Phoenix”, sold her possessions and bought a “death-trap car” which Russo drove for thousands of kilometres across the country. “We did this monumentally foolish thing out of which I met my wife, got my daughters, learned to be a writer. I can’t think of a single decision in my life that was anywhere near as important. I cannot imagine my life had my mother and I not done this incredibly foolish thing.”

While Russo began studying at the University of Arizona, which blossomed into his writing career, his mother was less fortunate. “None of it worked out for her, then or later. And everything has worked out for me, both personally and professionally.” ,It is noticeable how often Russo uses variations on the word “fool” to narrate this pivotal moment in his past. In his work, “foolishness” encapsulates how the strange intersection of human will and chance determines an individual or collective destiny. How a tree falling, a snake getting loose or an argument over a snow plough can change the course of a life.

One can hear something similar when Russo wonders how much control humans exert over their existence. “People are so confused about their lives, not just me. Most of the time they give themselves far too much credit about what’s worked out and not nearly enough slack about what hasn’t. You see all these self-made men. Where did they all come from?”

Does this include the current US president-elect? Russo’s chuckles become an amused, defeated “Noooooooo.” We talk before Donald Trump’s unexpected victory but Russo described the prospect of his presidency as “terrifying”. At the same time, he noted Trump’s popularity in the same parts of upstate New York in which he grew up.

Indeed, he argues that the economic and social decline of places like Gloversville embodied many of the debates raised by both Trump and Bernie Sanders, who lost in the Democratic primaries to Hillary Clinton. “We are talking about who’s to blame for the loss of American productivity. Who’s to blame for the loss of jobs? On who’s watch did all of this take place?”

Russo is certain how the cast of his new novel would have voted, and again uses the “fool” word. “Donald Trump ... wouldn’t have fooled Miss Beryl for a second. That’s the correct answer. Sully might have understood white, working class men’s rage, having been a working man all his life but he would never have been fooled by Trump either.”

In this, US politics has cottoned onto ideas that Russo has been exploring for 30 years: Mohawk, the fictional setting of his debut novel, was a mill town being battered by unemployment, the erosion of home-grown manufacturing and the lure of major cities. "It's not because I was smarter than anybody else but because I happened to be born in this place, at this time. I've really had no other subject throughout my career."

As so often in his life, writing enabled Russo to transform apparent disaster into triumph. “As a younger man, being born in Gloversville was something I thought I would have to overcome, a weight I was going to drag behind me. I came to learn it’s what has propelled my life forward.”

Despite the pleasure of Everybody's Fool, Russo has no plans to attempt a trilogy. "I can't imagine it but you never know. Two months before writing Everybody's Fool, I couldn't have imagined it either." He has an idea for a new novel but hasn't yet written a word. In the meantime, he has two collections to organise: a book of essays and another of short stories.

Given Everybody's Fool's unmissable preoccupation with death – it opens in a graveyard and ends with several brushes with mortality – I end by asking Russo about posterity. "I don't want to leave a good book of mine unwritten," he replies. "I don't know how many more there are but I want every one of them."

Death does not scare him. But as is so often in Russo’s writing and conversation, adversity is counterbalanced by lighter thoughts. Now based largely in Portland, Oregon, he talks with wonder at being surrounded by family: his wife, daughters and grandchildren, whom he sees for Sunday lunch almost every weekend. No wonder he says: “I feel like I have lived the life I have wanted to live.”

James Kidd is a freelance reviewer based in London.