In Richard Russo’s latest book, the Portland-based novelist trains a lens on himself, bringing his trademark warmth and humor to his first essay collection. In “The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers and Life,” Russo proves to be a familiar presence – thoughtful, funny, endearing – and surprising, as well.

Nearly 20 years after winning the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for his novel, “Empire Falls,” Russo remains astonished by his own success. Nor does he know of anyone from his past who foresaw the writing career he has enjoyed. Which gets to the heart of this book: Russo opines on the themes of ambition and talent, and the often dicey relationship between the two. Among the anecdotal evidence, he cites his own failed rock star dreams as a teenage guitarist with ample hormones and middling talent. Bigger and better amps and mics may have fueled the illusion for awhile, but the truth would ultimately win out. Russo was no Springsteen.

Still, talent proves to be just one of many variables on the road to success. Russo recalls a uniquely gifted writing student who vanished mid-term from class, retreating to the safe familiarity of his home town, and another who detoured into teaching.

“I’ve never believed that writers are special people with special gifts,” he says, “but writing isn’t easy. Most people who want to be writers end up abandoning the struggle. Who knows why others slog on endlessly against reason and all the odds?”

In the book’s longest essay, “Getting Good,” Russo muses on the craft versus business of writing; concurs with Malcolm Gladwell that it takes roughly 10,000 hours to master a complicated skill; and reveals that, for him, writing wasn’t a choice. While finishing his doctoral dissertation, Russo was writing stories on the side. “And before I knew it,” he says, “(I) was obsessed to the point of addiction.”

Among other topics, Russo analyzes what makes something funny, why the omniscient point of view is so versatile, and how writers find their voice. He describes his admiration for Ross Macdonald, who conceived the hard-boiled Lew Archer detective series, yet also carried on a rich literary correspondence with author Eudora Welty.


“While I would have loved to write books like Macdonald’s, and even tried my hand at detective stories, such a radical metamorphosis simply wasn’t possible for me,” Russo says, “so in the end I had little choice but to return, at least imaginatively, to my heart’s home and be who I was, who I’d always been and, it appeared, I was meant to be.”

Unplugged from fictional characters and reporting on his own behalf, Russo is a genial narrator, meandering, poking fun at himself. If a joke or gag can be found, he’ll milk it for all it’s worth – even if it requires an apology after the fact. Still, a thread of sadness permeates this book, with more than a few references to the central longing in Russo’s life – for a steady father and an intact family.

Readers who come to this book in search of the storyteller they know from Russo’s fiction will be well-rewarded. The strongest pieces here are stories that emanate from the author’s life – about writing, teaching and friendship, including the standout essay, “Imagining Jenny,” on the bond between Russo and fellow author Jennifer Finney Boylan, who was Jim Boylan when they first met. The book also includes fine examples of Russo’s literary criticism – an analysis of “The Pickwick Papers” and an appraisal of Mark Twain’s nonfiction – which make for a bit of a mishmash. Notwithstanding the book’s catch-all subtitle (“Essays on Writing, Writers and Life”), critical pieces seem an odd pairing with the personal essays that dominate the book.

In the end, some readers may prefer the more well-rounded author-teacher-critic version of Russo, while others will favor the undiluted storyteller. Either way, Russo delivers the cozy intelligence and comic savvy that readers have come to admire.

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News.

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