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Chronicler of the Everyday

Novelist Russo takes 12 years to produce book of short stories


Although it took him nearly 12 years to fill this slender volume of seven stories, Richard Russo's new collection proves worth the wait. Released on the heels of his last novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls, The Whore's Child explores how even the simplest hopes and dreams are often difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Russo views life as a great mystery, one in which he seeks to imagine the deepest truths of another human life, yet each story in this collection evokes an understanding and acknowledgement of exactly how small we all are. Russo makes it clear that although some things in our lives cannot be completely understood, there are those things that remain that we each have felt and shared such as pain, humiliation, and the fear of inadequacy.These are stories that calculate the cost of human relationships. In lean, agile language, Russo stages a battle between the emotionally blind and the damaged goods, the vulnerable and the poisoned down and out. It's an equation whose sum proves there are no winners and no heroes; for redemption, when it comes to his characters, does so in the form of a sweet, unexpected glimpse of selfless love -- nothing more than that, but nothing less either. "Some say it is people who are flawed, not the concept."

In the collection's title story, Russo presents two incongruous extremes of suffering: a septuagenarian nun who views her whole life as a lie and a college writing workshop instructor who is left to pick up the pieces of his life when his wife walks out. Sister Ursula, the daughter of a prostitute, whose social and financial status was determined early by the parents that abandoned her, spends her youth isolated and shunned by others in a convent, and for the remainder of her life clings to the hope, and indeed the prayer, that she will be liberated from her suffering by the father who could not afford to rear his daughter. But now in her seventies, resigned to her miserable existence within the convent, Ursula waits to die, still clinging to the hope, and the possibility, that her father did indeed love her. She finds herself in a college fiction-writing workshop, writing a memoir of her life. But much to her instructor's dismay, she refuses to write fiction, for to do so would be a lie, and what they each find there in the manuscript, surprises them both.

Like the title story, the best are those peopled with individuals whose thoughts run only in one direction -- toward a past in which a distant seed of pain has been allowed to grow and bloom with the passage of each year. In "Buoyancy," a retired university professor is haunted by the memory of his wife's nervous breakdown 30 years prior. During a vacation to the same Maine island they visited many years ago, June and Paul Snow begin to repair a relationship and marriage that has suffered from year after year of neglect. One of them is surprised to find that sometimes the most difficult person to understand isn't one's mate, but one's self.

Russo examines the concept of human love in all its beginnings and endings and shows us that although we might want to attain perfection in our relationships, we are rarely successful. In "Monhegan Light," a Hollywood moviemaker uncovers his late wife's affair with a successful artist, but discovers that he, and not his late wife, was the one who'd been living a lie for the past 25 years.

While the collection sometimes labors over themes with limited success in stories like "The Further You Go," it accomplishes it dazzlingly in the "Mysteries of Linwood Hart." Linwood's is a resonant voice that finds a hollow counterpoint with the older, bitter and jaded narrators of the other stories in the collection, whose lives are haunted by the fringes of death, isolation, grief, and regret. Russo's prose is rich with the sensory immediacy of childhood. For Linwood, the secret desires of inanimate objects are often more clear to him than those of the people around him, particularly those of his parents, whose marriage had begun to dissolve before his eyes. In Linwood, Russo has found a voice that is fresh and intuitive and a joy to read. After all, who better to dare linger over some of life's bigger questions than a child?

Russo's new collection is a book whose stories feel like an encounter with the weightiness and depth of a large novel. Its main effect is to increase the anticipation of his next project.

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