Richard Russo is anything but a minimalist. Don’t expect from him a stark 10-page vignette of some hazily defined protagonist experiencing a moment of enigmatic epiphany before continuing on with his or her ennui-infused life. The author of “Everybody’s Fool,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Empire Falls,” “Straight Man” and five other novels, the Portland writer works best with narratives of a certain heft.

Even when he does work at a shorter length, his stories tend toward the novella end of the scale. Such is the case with his first collection of short(er) fiction since “The Whore’s Child” in 2002. In “Trajectory,” Russo presents a quartet of stories that explore some of his familiar themes in new and revealing ways.

There is no individual piece titled “Trajectory.” Rather, each selection focuses on characters in early to late middle age questioning the direction, velocity and impact of their lives. Sometimes the characters’ self-assessments land far from the mark; sometimes they hit uncomfortably close to the bull’s-eye.

The collection’s opener, “Horseman,” takes its title from the poem “Windy Nights” by Robert Louis Stevenson. (“All night long in the dark and wet,/A man goes riding by.”) As she prepares to confront a student suspected of plagiarism, English professor Janet Moore hears the stanzas echoing in her head for reasons she can’t define, even as they remind her of her own humiliating encounter with Marcus Bellamy, an “academic superstar” from her grad-school years.

Before becoming a full-time writer, Russo taught at Colby College. It’s no surprise that “Horseman” so impeccably captures the language of academe, the conversational give and take between colleagues, the rhetorical arguments employed by students caught breaking the rules.

Even as she considers her own current failures and disappointments, Janet finds herself dwelling on the past. Years ago, after witnessing an act of kindness by her supposed nemesis, Janet listened to Bellamy talk about “the greatest of mysteries”: what it feels like to be another person. “Literature. Life. They give us tiny glimpses, leaving us hungry for more,” he said.


Here in the present, as Thanksgiving break commences and the havoc of the extended weekend gears up, Janet re-evaluates her career, her marriage, her success as a parent. She acknowledges how hungry she has become behind the walls of protection she has built for herself. Her renewed self-assessment is heartbreaking, even as it leads to the possibility of hope and connection.

At nearly 100 pages, “Voices” is the longest piece in “Trajectory.” It also may be the most thematically substantial and accomplished.

At the end of his academic career, haunted by his unintentional mishandling of one of his students, Nate finds himself part of a group tour of the Venice Biennale. Part of the rationale for the trip is a reunion with Julian, his semi-estranged brother. Nate’s sibling seems to have reconsidered engaging in any way except through cryptic insults.

On the first day of the trip, Nate gets separated from his group and ends up wandering through the sinking city, never sure of where he’s going, relying on a malfunctioning smart phone to provide clues of his whereabouts.

As his frustration grows, Nate’s reactions are hilarious yet tinged with a deep sense of sadness. All he wants is some genuine contact with someone – his ex-fiancee; a pretty, recently divorced fellow tourist; even his disagreeable brother. By the story’s end, Russo demonstrates again how adept he is at conveying the plight of older men mired in confusion, as well as how carefully he constructs the possibility of eventual understanding.

“Intervention,” set during the Great Recession, focuses on Ray, a Maine real estate broker with health and money issues, trying to unload a house whose owner can’t seem to cut the final tie with her possessions. Ray wants to motivate his client to clean up the property, but he’s also distracted by fending off the ministrations of a pushy friend who wants him to see a new doctor.


Richard Russo
Photo by Elena Seibert

At the center of “Intervention” lies the puzzle of what happened to sour the relationship between Ray’s father and the older man’s brother. As in “Voice,” family ties prove paradoxically confining and fragile, and Russo drives the point home with a deft touch.

The volume’s final story, “Milton and Marcus,” takes place in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, but is really set on the psychological outskirts of Hollywood. The story alternates between the narration of lapsed novelist Ryan and the old, unfinished script that may be his lifeline to medical insurance for his ailing spouse.

Russo has written the occasional screenplay, for adaptations of his own work, including “Nobody’s Fool” and “Empire Falls,” and on projects originated by others – “The Ice Harvest” and “Twilight.” Over the years, he seems to have picked up on the mind games played by the celebrated and the talented, and he delights in delineating a twisty La La Land double-cross.

“Milton and Marcus” is cleverly observed, but somehow it’s not as involving as the other stories in “Trajectory.” It’s often dangerous to introduce a story within a story, and in this case, the excerpts from Ryan’s script, even though they comment on the primary narrative, are not as engaging. The momentum of the tale slows whenever they are introduced, but the main story has enough satirical energy to avoid stalling out.

Last year’s “Everybody’s Fool” was the kind of big, robust, expansive work on which Russo has built his reputation. It would be ungrateful to ask for a follow-up of similar size so soon. But despite its slimmer page-count, “Trajectory” is a worthwhile trade-off – cogent, wry and satisfying in its own right. These shorter pieces only confirm Russo’s status as one of the most justly celebrated American writers.

Freelance writer Michael Berry is a native of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, who has contributed to the Boston Globe, New Hampshire Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Times and many other publications.

Twitter: @mlberry

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