Richard Russo. The Whore's Child and Other Stories.
IT MAY BE that what makes great writers not merely impressive or important but exciting is that they address a reader's private hunger for imagination and passion, elegance, and intelligence or truth, a hunger for a quality and quantity that goes beyond the requirements of ordinary life. Our relationships with such writers, these masters of excess, are like love affairs, seductive and unsettling, in which we adapt and expand. While I cannot speak about Empire Falls (see WLT 76:2, p. 153), the novel for which Richard Russo won the Pulitzer Prize, his seven fiction stories in The Whore's Child and Other Stories, observant and intelligent as they are, do not inspire the ache and awe that makes literature the great seducer it can be. These stories are often about love and family as they unfold amid work, neighborhood, school, church, and other forms of simple, orderly existence. Many of the stories are about people in midlife, living with choices made decades before, and some of these people are already weakened by age (emotional fragility, physical weakness, and long silence). I wonder what an acknowledgment of more complex, mysterious realms might have meant for Russo's characters and his art, as it is possible that not only literature but also spirituality and philosophy are rooted more in imagination than in reality, in a longing for more than reality.
The strongest selections are probably the title story, about an elderly nun reflecting on a lifetime of bitterness in a biographical narrative she writes for a fiction class headed by a writer whose wife has left him after he had an affair not out of lust but as consolation for career disappointment, and also the stories "Monhegan Light," "Joy Ride," and "Poison." In "Monhegan Light," the vengeful sister of a man's deceased wife sends him a beautiful nude painting of her by the wife's former lover. The recipient husband goes to a small island artist colony to meet the painter and find out about the relationship that took place during twenty summers. It seems the husband--who is casually involved with an-other woman, a younger woman--did not fall in love with his long-neglected wife, whom he nursed carefully in the last months of her illness, until he saw the painting. The husband, a director of cinema photography, treats women tenderly with his camera but not in his life. Russo captures well the tone of this man (smart but small-minded, blunt yet secretive), and the story--like "Joy Ride," which is about a marriage separation, and also "Poison"--conveys emotional conflicts in both word and act, seeming almost harshly truthful, as if a fundamental fact and force in society had been named.
"Poison" is about the visit of an old college friend--now a published writer and professor, a critical proletarian sensibility--to a more successful writer, though also of working-class origin. The visitor wants his friend to return with him to the town they grew up in and take on a political fight. Is it possible to make peace with the past and those with whom we shared it? asks this story and several others in the collection, which closes with a narrative about a boy capable of brief, sharp observations, an inclination that might prepare him for--though not protect him from--Fife as lived far from any hoped-for paradise.
Queens, New York