Book Report: The Risk Pool

So, I’m very overdue in writing any of the book reports I promised. I’ve been too busy either reading or working on my webbified Exquisite Corpse (yes, that’s back in the works). So I will begin to rectify.

The first book of the year, back at the beginning of January, was Richard Russo’s The Risk Pool. I’ve probably talked a lot about Russo here, but it’s good stuff. This one was worth reading, but there’s not much in it that I hadn’t already encountered in Mohawk, Nobody’s Fool, or to a lesser extent, Empire Falls, whether in setting, plot, character, style, subject matter. I’m not really complaining, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as a starting point, or if you aren’t sure you want to read everything. I’d start with Empire Falls or maybe Straight Man or Nobody’s Fool.

They all take place in some small manufacturing town that’s seen better days; there’s a lot of drinking of cheap beer in local bars; there’s usually a kid or two who have escaped and gone to college and gotten out; there’s some trash-talking; there’s a lot that might come off as melodrama if it weren’t done so well. They’re all also really funny. One of the things I most admire is Russo’s ability to take something that’s almost unbearably well-trodden in literature (say, the later-middle-aged English professor who’s had writer’s block since his first book was published, as in Straight Man) and to somehow make all of it seem fresh, like no one’s ever written about it before. I think it’s a rare but useful feat to not shy away from the obvious yet be totally original. As much as we all love to cling to our uniqueness, the truth of the matter is that most of the things that are really important to us have already been experienced by others, often millions of others. To not examine it, or cherish it, or share it, just because it’s been done before seems like a big mistake to me. And while a lot of writers blather about finding wonderful things in the ordinary, a lot of that kind of writing comes off to me as more pretentious than actual pretense.

Then again, maybe I just like it so much because the milieu Russo writes about is one that’s very familiar to me.

2 thoughts on “Book Report: The Risk Pool”

  1. They say there’s a million stories in the naked city — which means that here in New York, where I live, I share my story with at least seven other people.

  2. To me, one of the things that makes Russo great is that his writing affirms that though the same kinds of things happen to people in different places and at different times, each person’s experience of those things is very real and vital and unique. He gives you those real, unique experiences. In part, I link it back to character development. Though I haven’t read as many of his books as you have, my impression is that he does a really good job developing characters so that you can empathize with them, whatever they’re going through.

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