By Richard Russo
Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95, 256 pages
Readers know Richard Russo as a sharp and sympathetic observer of working-class characters. But “Trajectory” — a collection of three short stories and a novella — features a middle-class population with a high percentage of college teachers, a writer, a realtor, some film people and a couple of salesmen who probably moonlight as swindlers.
The latter run into money problems, and in “Intervention” finances are not great for Ray and Paula because this story is set in the recession, when Ray’s stock in trade — houses — were not selling, and art galleries like Paula’s were going bust. But mostly money is not a big problem for Mr. Russo’s bourgeois characters. Their discontents are endogenous, generated by their own characteristics and foibles, and shaped by personal history.
Take Nate in the novella “Voice,” for example. Encouraged by his brother Julian, he has joined a trip to the Venice Biennale. He’s a retired English professor who now wants to put behind him a badly judged interaction with a student suffering from Asperger’s. He also wants to mend fences with Julian, from whom he has been estranged.
But Julian’s need to mount a charm offensive against the women in the group thwarts this plan. So too does the maze of Venice streets. Nate loses himself — like so many fictional characters in Venice. Yet at the end of the tale he is emerging from the warren he has got himself into.
He is helping another member of the group, and looking forward to reconnecting with a woman who didn’t attract him when he first spotted her with a more beautiful companion, but who now gives “every indication of being the right woman for the job” of changing his mind about the idea that “we don’t amount to much.”
Links with others are central to these stories. The men often have abiding and supportive friendships with other men. One of Nate’s problems is that with Julian he doesn’t have, but would like, the brotherly bond that Ray has with his brother Bill in “Intervention.”
In “Milton and Marcus,” the eponymous guys are crime partners in a screenplay being written by the narrator. He is in Jackson Hole supposedly working on it with film star Bill Nolan and his long-term colleague Marty. Originally it had been written for Nolan and a former acting partner Wendy, who also befriended the narrator.
These guys value these relationships. Each partner props up the other. Often one person is disorderly and anarchic. It’s bad for Nate that Julian is this way; he’s more of a hindrance than a prop. But often the more disruptive or larger-than-life guy jostles the quieter one into risking more and therefore living more, as happens in “Milton and Marcus.”
In “Intervention” Ray’s friend Vinnie is a fixer. “Vinnie in a nutshell. Call me. You need a table at Babbo’s? Call me. You need Red Sox tickets? Call me. You need to get your dog trained? Call me. You don’t have a dog? Call me. Because Vinnie always knew a guy.” This often ticks off Ray. But in the end Vinnie nudges him to the place he needs to be.
Like many characters in this volume, including Nate and the narrator of “Milton and Marcus,” Ray has been stuck. So, too, is Janet in “Horseman.” Her husband recites Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem “Whenever the moon and stars are set. Whenever the wind is high,” to their son every night.
It’s insistent rhythm and dramatic words irritatingly, almost threateningly, run through her mind is if on an endless loop. She’s a well-respected college professor, noted for her incisive critical skills and her brilliantly argued writing, but there’s something missing. What has Stevenson’s children’s poem to do with that? The answer will possibly lead her to a better emotional place.
Like the other stories in the book, “Horseman” is crafted to show both Janet’s problems as she feels them, and her behavior as it appears to other people. This is a testament to Richard Russo’s skill at deploying his characters. They are sharply in view, and like opera singers performing quintets or sestets, they are all vital contributors. Equally significantly, their problems spring from their personalities, and the resolutions are heart-warming because they do indeed feel like real possibilities.
Of the four fictions gathered in “Trajectory,” “Intervention” is particularly shapely: a convincing picture of people living through particular time in a particular place. “Milton and Marcus” is a nuanced tale of male working partnerships, ending, like all four fictions, with a sense of hope — or at least possibility.
Reading “Trajectory” is absorbing. All four stories are challenging not because they are difficult — they are not — but because they raise questions about why we live our lives the way we do, and if that’s all right.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Massachusetts.
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