Richard Russo's fictional North Bath is a blue-collar town in upstate New York, a town where luck ran out a hundred years before when the springs that made it a popular spa town dried up. The town has been dying a slow death since then. It seems that nothing good ever happens there.
We visit the town in the fall of 1984. Ronald Reagan is president but his "Morning in America" certainly has not dawned in North Bath.
Nevertheless, there is hope on the horizon in the form of a theme park called the Ultimate Escape that may be built near the town, breathing in some much-needed life. The main booster of this putative theme park is the local banker Clive Peoples, Jr., perhaps the only purely unlikable character in this novel featuring smart-alecky, low-key characters.
Clive has a mother, eighty-year-old widow Beryl Peoples, a retired teacher who lives in one of North Bath's ancient houses, "aging clapboard Victorians and sprawling Greek Revivals that would have been worth some money if they were across the border in Vermont." Her house is located on North Main Street, which is lined by venerable elm trees that have so far escaped Dutch elm disease and which every winter release one or more limbs which crash into one of the ancient houses. Every winter, Miss Beryl is convinced that this will be the winter when the trees lower the boom on her house.
Miss Beryl taught English literature to several generations of eighth graders at the local public school. She was a strict grammarian and a tough teacher, but she always had a soft spot for one of her students, Donald Sullivan, Sully to all of his friends. He doesn't really seem to have any enemies, but with friends like his, who needs them?
Sully is a 60-year-old incorrigible underachiever and for twenty years he has lived as a tenant on the second floor of Miss Beryl's house. They have a comfortable easy-going relationship. Truthfully, Miss Beryl is much closer to Sully than she is to her son, whom Sully refers to as "The Bank."
Sully is divorced and for a couple of decades has been carrying on a halfhearted affair with another man's wife. He is estranged from his only son, who he took no part in raising, leaving all that to his ex-wife and her new husband, the estimable Ralph who proved to be a good father to Peter. Sully is badly crippled, having fallen and injured his left knee while on a job. The knee hasn't healed properly and has developed arthritis. It swells up like a balloon every day.
Our hero has been collecting partial disability payments and as a condition of that has been going to the local community college for classes in how to repair air conditioners. Since he needed one more course in his curriculum, he chose to take a course in philosophy. But now, against the advice of his lawyer and everyone who cares about him, he's decided to give all of that up and go back to work doing casual labor.
We follow Sully around town as he goes on his daily rounds, starting with checking in to make sure Miss Beryl is still alive, then on to breakfast at the diner, a visit to the OTB parlor, and to whatever dirty job he's been hired to do that day, usually aided by his best friend, Rub, and finally back to the bar in the evening. Along the way, he interacts with most of the denizens of this town including his lawyer, his ex-wife and her husband, his son and family who are visiting from West Virginia, his estranged lover, the local businessman who usually employs him and the man's beautiful wife on whom Sully has a major crush.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat. This is the story of North Bath and the story of Sully.
Well, things do happen. Punches get thrown. People go crazy. Families break up. Sully steals a snowblower. Repeatedly. And so it goes.
But if that sounds boring, it really isn't. Russo insinuates his characters into our hearts and makes us care about them and their everyday, mundane lives. We feel privileged to be able to see into the lives of these people and to eavesdrop on their conversations. In fact, those conversations are the best part of this book. The characters are quick and inventive in their dialogue and they delight in giving each other a hard time. Smart-alecks all. I enjoyed my time with them.
That being said, this book was very long at some 560 pages and part of that was because it included many minor characters who did not really contribute to the plot. Peter's grad school nympho girlfriend, for example. What real purpose did she serve?
Moreover, I confess I was disconcerted by the use of the N-word in referring to North Bath's only black man. The word certainly fit within the context of the sarcastic dialogue of the novel and it clearly was not meant to be offensive, but, really, was that necessary?
So, with a bit of stricter editing, this would definitely have been a five-star read. As it is, I'll give it four glowing stars.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars