“If the depiction of lunacy happens to be your goal, academic life requires no embellishment.”
-Richard Russo, “How ‘I’ Moved Heaven and Earth”
For many readers, the genre-defining “academic novel” is David Lodge’s Small World. The book delivers a whirlwind tale of jet-setting elite, replete with classical references and jokes aimed at the real-life academic literati the novel satirizes.
Lodge’s literary conference circuit stands a world apart from the moribund mill towns of Richard Russo’s novels Nobody’s Fool and Empire Falls. One would hardly expect to find Lodge’s deconstructionist icon Morris Zapp talking horse racing with Richard Russo’s Donald “Sully” Sullivan in a dive bar. As such, academic novels and comical tales of blue-collar down-and-outers are unlikely to flow from the same writer’s pen. Any given author is only entitled to so much range and empathy, right?
Though academic jet-setters are hardly his métier, Russo has spent much of his adult life at universities. Alongside the enduring small-town epics with which he’s identified, Russo has carved out a parallel career writing insightful—and funny—campus novels and short stories. And his latest collection of short fiction returns him, in part, to the academic realm.
Russo’s new book, Trajectory, is a collection of three substantial stories and a novella. “Voice,” previously published as the e-book-only novella Nate in Venice, introduces Nate Wilson, a just-retired English professor who joins his brother in Venice for a group tour of an art exhibit. Nate arrives still reeling from an incident involving a female student, which appears to have precipitated his hasty retirement. Still coming to terms with the knowledge that he chose the wrong career trajectory—academic life over his true calling, carpentry—Nate, like many of Russo’s academics, might seem more at home in a blue-collar town than academia, though he’s made choices that situate him in neither sphere.
“The Horseman” presents a young female professor beset by an undergraduate serial plagiarist, and her male colleagues are content to look the other way. She’s also contending with the haunting memory of a deceased grad school mentor of Morris Zapp-like stature who, years earlier, praised her ambition but accused her of absenting herself from her own work. “I can’t locate you anywhere,” he told her, dismissing a stack of her essays. “It’s as if you don’t exist.”
Russo’s third story, “Intervention,” concerns a real estate agent named Ray who’s doing everything he can to ignore his cancer diagnosis. Though introspective real estate fiction seems more like Richard Ford’s territory than Richard Russo’s, Russo makes it very much his own. His originality is highlighted throughout, as evidenced in a father’s warning about hospitals: “Never let the bastards take your pants… Bare-assed men don’t get to make decisions.”
Trajectory’s final and most delightful story breaks new topical ground for Russo: the hypocrisy-riddled world of Hollywood script doctoring. In the first two pages of “Milton and Marcus,” Russo reveals the entire cycle of a writer’s experience as a Hollywood “hireling.” It begins with the giddy first few weeks of wooing, wining and dining, in which everyone on the project pretends the writer is indispensable. Writers who have been through this before know they’ll be fired in due course—“though probably not by the people flattering you now.” Then comes a call from your agent to let you know “you’re not the right guy after all, the one who understands working-class people, or Ivy League professors, or returning Iraq veterans, or whoever the fuck this movie’s about.”
Then the story kicks in, and “Milton and Marcus” gets better and better.
In his 2002 review of Russo’s first book of short stories, The Whore’s Child, Rand Richards Cooper compared reading a collection of Russo short fiction to “watching a home-run hitter try to lay down a squeeze bunt.” Though Russo will never join Flannery O’Connor, Bernard Malamud, John Cheever, Annie Proulx and Steven Millhauser in the ranks of successful novelists who proved even better short story writers, the near-instant gratification of Russo’s short stories is nothing to sneeze at.
The unmitigated joy of Russo’s novels is found in following the “arc of people’s lives across the decades” that Cooper described in his review—and the colossally comic episodes Russo imagines as those arcs play out. But the reward is the hard-won wisdom, the remarkable empathy Russo demonstrates for working-class people, or Ivy League professors, or whomever the book at hand happens to profile.
Russo writes in Trajectory, “People cling to folly as if it were their most prized possession, defending it, sometimes with violence, against the possibility of wisdom.” Unearthing such insight on page 44 (instead of page 444) is a bit like watching a successful squeeze bunt score a runner from third—just as exciting as a home run, but a shorter trip and a rarer treat.
Steve Nathans-Kelly is a writer and editor based in Ithaca, New York.