Richard Russo’s “Nobody’s Fool,” published in 1993, isn’t a novel that clamors for a follow-up. A long book about small-town life in upstate New York, it seemed to have accomplished what its author set out to do, capturing with humor and compassion some pivotal moments in the lives of fictional North Bath’s working-class residents, chief among them Donald “Sully” Sullivan, unambitious day laborer and town gadfly.

Set 10 years later than the original, the sequel finds Sully, now financially independent thanks to a lucky off-track bet, at another personal crossroads. The main focus of the narrative, however, shifts to concentrate largely on one of the bit players from the first book. Douglas Raymer, then an easily rattled police officer, is now the town’s equally self-doubting chief of police. It is he who undergoes the greatest degree of change over the course of a few jam-packed days.

As “Everybody’s Fool” opens, Raymer reluctantly attends the burial of a local judge, and even at the graveside he cannot stop obsessing about the strange garage door opener he found in his wife’s car. Before she died in a freak accident, Becka Raymer had planned to run off with her secret lover, and Raymer believes that the wayward remote control will somehow prove with whom she intended to leave, a notion that causes him great psychological turmoil.

Russo writes, “Since losing Becka, he had come unmoored. Somewhere along the line he’d lost not only his wife but his faith in justice, in both this world and the next.” Raymer’s mental unmooring is strong enough to cause him to faint in the heat and send him tumbling face first into the judge’s open grave.

Raymer’s is not the only close confrontation with mortality in Bath that day. The wall of a dubious real estate enterprise known as The Old Mill Lofts, undermined by a lake of septic goo bubbling up underneath it, collapses and nearly kills a passing driver. At Raymer’s run-down apartment building, a wayward contraband cobra incites a panicky evacuation. And then there’s Sully predicament in the wake of his visit to the VA cardiologist, the diagnosis of encroaching congestive heart failure, with the prognosis of two years, “but probably closer to one” if he chooses to do nothing about it.

Whether still among the living or not, most characters from the previous book show up eventually in this one. Rub Squeers, Sully’s partner in horrible odd jobs, frets that he’s being replaced in his best friend’s affections. Sully’s off-and-on married lover, Ruth, is less concerned with their haphazard relationship, more worried that her daughter has taken up again with her abusive and unpredictable ex, Roy Purdy. Beryl Peoples, Sully’s eighth-grade English teacher and former landlady, has long since passed away, but Sully is still haunted by the question she was fond of asking him, “Does it ever trouble you that you haven’t done more with the life God gave you?”

A lot happens in the roughly 48-hour span of “Everybody’s Fool,” perhaps too much. Raymer in particular suffers more indignities and experiences more epiphanies in two days than is strictly believable, even after he’s struck by lightning and experiences a disconcerting episode of dual personality. Sully’s son and grandson, so crucial to the first book, are mostly kept off-stage this time, which is just as well, since the accumulation of plot threads is already remarkably heavy without their presence.859028_609409 fool.jpg

A number of sad and distressing events happen in “Everybody’s Fool,” but it is at heart a comedy. Russo keeps the jokes coming with well-practiced regularity, and no one is likely to complain that some are overly broad, when the majority hit their mark.

Like a 15-year high school class reunion, “Everybody’s Fool” ends up feeling not entirely necessary but worth experiencing if circumstances allow. Even at nearly 500 pages, it manages to not wear out its welcome. Sully and his North Bath cohorts still have an irrepressible gift of gab, and it’s a pleasure to hear them trade wisecracks and a few unpleasant truths.

If “Everybody’s Fool” lacks the depth and moral heft of Russo’s “Bridge of Sighs” or the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Empire Falls,” it seems on an equal footing with the campus comedy “Straight Man” and feels more substantial and well-tuned than “That Old Cape Magic.” No matter where it ranks amid Russo’s output, “Everybody’s Fool” displays his trademark style, that easy, sardonic and yet not unkind authorial voice that reveals the characters’ inner lives, full of well-worn habit and surprising contradiction, with honesty, humor and compassion.

 

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

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