Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


  “When?”

  “The day she died, actually. The plan had been for him to pick Becka up at your place, then drive down to the station. She was going to wait in the car while Jerome came in and told you they were going away together.”

  “But I went home early.”

  “You must’ve beat him there by fifteen or twenty minutes, because when he turned onto your street the ambulance was out front, along with two or three cruisers.”

  “What did he do?”

  “What do you think? He called me.”

  “And you said?”

  “What could I say? I told him to go back home. To let me handle things. By the time I got there, he was like what you saw today.”

  Raymer tried to square these revelations with his own memories of that awful day and those that followed, but it was all a dreamlike haze. Until now, Jerome’s absence during that period hadn’t really registered as significant, just a vague recollection that he hadn’t been around for a while. He’d had more important things to worry himself sick about.

  “So just like that, he needed you again.”

  “He took a leave of absence. We told people he was down in North Carolina finishing up his master’s, but in fact he was in a facility in Albany trying to put himself back together. I visited him there on weekends and days off.”

  “And he got better?”

  “More like the old Jerome,” she said, “which was hardly better. With Becka gone, all his obsessions returned with a vengeance. But yeah, we patched things up between us. Things got back to being almost normal. Not that anybody else would call it normal. Still, I was proud of him. Inside he was still a mess, but at least he could function again. You finally seemed to be coming out of your funk, too, and I was thinking maybe we’d all dodged a bullet. But then you had to get ahold of that garage-door remote. I never should’ve told Jerome about that. Overnight he was batshit again. Imagining you knew.” She met his gaze now. “Imagining I told you.”

  “Why would he think you’d do that? You always kept his secrets.”

  “Well, he knew I…”

  “Knew you what?” Raymer said, his heart suddenly in his throat.

  “Doesn’t matter,” she said, getting to her feet.

  When he, dispirited, rose as well, she seemed to really take in his massively bandaged hand. “Will it heal right?” she said. At Jerome’s she’d caught a glimpse of the grotesque excavation he’d made of his palm.

  “There’s evidently some nerve damage. They say I dug right through, almost. Speaking of batshit.”

  He expected her to chide him, but she didn’t. “I read about this guy once?” she said. “He had an itch on his scalp, and he scratched straight through his skull and into his brain.”

  “That’s supposed to make me feel better?” he said. “That you’ve heard of somebody dumber than me?”

  She ignored this. They were standing there facing each other, the desk still in between them. “And this other guy,” she continued, “had the hiccups for a whole year. Tried everything but just couldn’t get rid of them. Finally he couldn’t take it anymore and jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. Which kills just about everybody, but somehow he survived. And guess what?”

  “He still had the hiccups?”

  She offered him a sad smile. “See, that right there is what we need to work on. No, the hiccups were gone. Turns out, jumping off the Golden Gate’s a hundred percent effective as a cure for hiccups.”

  Feeling a smile on his own face, Raymer allowed himself to imagine what it would be like to spend the rest of his life with this woman, having conversations like this all the time. Now that he thought about it, every single conversation they’d ever had, even the ones that were exercises in pure exasperation, always left him feeling less alone. What would happen, he wondered, if he came out from behind the desk? “What we need to work on?” he said. “We? As in—”

  “Us.”

  “There’s an us?”

  “If you want.”

  “I do,” Raymer said, at once aware and not really caring very much that these same words had, when last uttered, caused him no end of grief.

  “A couple things we’d have to agree on first,” she told him.

  “Like?”

  “Like you’d have to figure out how to forgive Jerome. He’s my brother.”

  “I think I can do that.” In fact, he was pretty sure he already had.

  “I’d ask you to forgive me, too, if I’d done anything wrong, but I didn’t—unless you’d say keeping Jerome’s secret was wrong. Is that something you’d count?”

  “Not if you don’t.”

  “And you’d have to let me out from behind my desk. Allow me to do the job I was trained for.”

  “Sorry, I can’t do that,” he said. And when she again narrowed her eyes dangerously, he added, “You forget. I’m not your boss anymore. I resigned.”

  From her hip pocket she took what was left of the resignation letter he’d given to Gus yesterday afternoon, now torn in quarters, and tossed the scraps on his blotter.

  “Okay, then,” he said.

  “And speaking of coming out from behind desks…”

  She met him halfway, with only the wastebasket between them now. She leaned toward him and he toward her. Suddenly, just as their lips were about to touch, an arc of static electricity leaped from Raymer’s lips to Charice’s, causing both to take a step away. “Whoa!” they said in unison, vigorously rubbing their lips with the backs of their hands. For a moment they just looked at each other, amazed. The office was carpeted, but still. “What the hell was that?” she said.

  Dougie, Raymer thought, saying goodbye, leaving as he’d arrived on an electrical current. A fairly insane thought, sure, though just maybe…

  Their second attempt was more successful. “Whoa,” each said again, this time for a different reason.

  “Actually,” he said, “I’ve got one stipulation myself.”

  “What’s that?”

  “You have to come with me to the middle school tomorrow morning.” Because if he was staying—and he most definitely was—in a matter of hours he’d be standing on the stage of his old middle-school auditorium talking to a couple hundred people about his eighth-grade English teacher. While still a scary idea, for some reason it inspired somewhat less than the usual full-blown terror. After all, within the last twenty-four hours he’d been struck by lightning and handled a deadly coral snake, events that cast public speaking in a whole new light. He wouldn’t be brilliant, he knew, but he’d be no worse than Reverend Tunic, and at least he would be wearing pants. And, unlike Tunic, he’d stick to the truth. He’d tell folks about all the books Miss Beryl had given him as a boy. How he’d hidden them in his closet so his mother wouldn’t think he’d stolen the damn things. He’d tell his audience that Miss Beryl had held a far-better opinion of him than he had of himself, and how as a boy that good opinion had frightened him, because he could see no rational basis for it. Further, he’d explain how the old woman had kept scribbling Who is this Douglas Raymer? in the margins of his essays. And how she’d remained in his margins down through the years, like a good teacher will. He would tell them these things because he’d meant for years to thank this dear woman and never gotten around to it.

  —

  THEY AGREED he shouldn’t check in to a hotel for just a couple hours, as he’d planned to do, because that was silly. On the other hand, Charice informed him, accompanying him to the Moribund Arms was absolutely out of the question. It was her firm intention never to set foot in that place except to arrest somebody. No, they’d go to her place and take her car, which was parked out front. Next week Raymer would trade in his piece-of-shit Jetta for a vehicle more befitting a chief of police. Just not a Mustang.

  Outside, the rain had stopped. When they got to her vehicle, Charice remembered something. “Wait here,” she said, and as Raymer did so, it occurred to him that waiting for a woman who’d forgotten something was one of life?
??s underrated pleasures. How many times had he and Becka been about to go somewhere when she had to go back for something she’d left on the kitchen table? An annoying habit, yes, yet how wonderful it was when she reappeared, how sweet the knowledge that she wasn’t gone for good. Until the day she really was gone. And now it was every bit as wonderful when Charice reappeared, even though what she had in her hand was the ceramic cobra.

  “What are you doing with that?” he said.

  “Taking it back home, of course.”

  He arched an eyebrow at her. “Back home?”

  “I bought it for Jerome, thinking it’d make him less scared of real snakes, but all it did was freak him out. Why? Does it scare you, too?”

  “No, but you do.”

  Not really, of course. She might be full of surprises, but he’d basically been right to trust her, he reflected, tossing his gym bag into the back and sliding into the passenger seat. In truth, Raymer had always been attracted to women who were a step or two ahead of him, though naturally that was most of them. The snake, now lying stiffly on top of his bag, did make him curious, though, as to what else she might’ve lied about. Whether, for instance, she even had a butterfly tattoo.

  Play your cards right for once, Dougie advised, and you can find out.

  “What?” Charice said. “Did you say something?”

  “I started to say that I think maybe I’m in love with you,” he told her, which was, like the world itself, both a lie and the truth.

  “That’s the other thing we gotta work on,” she told him. “That maybe.”

  Acknowledgments

  When a writer gets to be my age, the list of people he’s indebted to is almost as long as the book itself. Many thanks to the usual suspects, acknowledged in all or most of my previous books. Barbara, Emily and Kate continue to make all things possible. Nat, Judith, Adia and Joel (my agents) could not have been more steadfast in their faith over the long decades. Gary, Sonny, Gabby? Along with everybody else at Knopf and Vintage, you continue to make me look better, smarter and more talented than I am, and I know you’d make me younger, taller and better-looking if you could.

  As to this particular book, the following helped plug some of the more obvious holes in my knowledge: Judy Andersen, Tim Hall, Peter Tranchell, Bob Wilkins, Greg Gottung, Jim Gottung, Bill Lundgren and Carol Wolff.

  An Alfred A. Knopf Reading Group Guide

  Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo

  The introduction, author biography, discussion questions, and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Everybody’s Fool, the long-awaited sequel to Richard Russo’s hit novel Nobody’s Fool.

  Discussion Questions

  1. Evaluate the title of the book. Who do you believe the title is referencing? Is the foolishness of the title character—or characters—something determined by public opinion or something revealed via a process of self-reflection? Explain. What causes the character(s) to act foolishly or otherwise be perceived as foolish?

  2. Analyze the setting of the book. How does the author characterize North Bath? How does North Bath compare with its neighboring town Schuyler Springs? What factors have contributed to the condition of North Bath? How does the economic and aesthetic state of the town affect its residents?

  3. Everybody’s Fool opens with a description of the local cemetery. How might the cemetery and its present condition function as symbolism? What might the uprooted tree and coffins represent? Why do you think that Russo chose to begin the story with this imagery of the divided and overflowing cemetery?

  4. Evaluate the themes of fortune and luck. How much are the characters’ lives shaped by luck? Do they have any control over their fate? If so, where is this evident? Why does Gus think that the townspeople of North Bath are determined to believe in the idea of luck and fortune? Do you agree with him? Why or why not?

  5. At the start of the book, Raymer notes that he has always been “vulnerable to the judgments of others” (this page), so much so that he actually becomes whatever people call him. Is he ever able to overcome this problem? What other characters in the novel are influenced by the judgments of others? Are the judgments a primarily positive or negative influence?

  6. In the chapter entitled “Slinky,” Raymer indicates that he prefers order, but says that generally “humans preferred to meander” (this page). What does he mean by this? Does the novel ultimately seem to support or refute his claim? Explain.

  7. Is there an identifiable protagonist or antagonist in the book or a sense of “good” and “bad” characters, or do the characters offer a more complicated and nuanced view of humanity and human nature? Does any single point of view overshadow the rest? Which of the characters do you feel most sympathetic toward and why? Who do you find the most disagreeable and how does the author elicit this response? Does your perception of any one of the characters change substantially over the course of the novel? If so, which character and how?

  8. Consider the various relationships depicted in the book. Do the characters in North Bath share a strong bond with one another? If so, what unites them? Alternatively, why do you think that so many of the characters are entangled in or just out of broken relationships, and how have they been affected by these relationships? What seems to prevent the characters from having healthier and stronger relationships?

  9. Why do you believe that the author incorporates elements of comedy and the absurd in the novel? How did these elements influence and shape your interpretation of the novel and your response to its characters? For instance, does the use of comedy make you feel more or less sympathetic to the characters and their plight? Explain.

  10. Many of the characters in the book are aging and are faced with their morality. How does this affect their actions and the way they choose to live? What questions arise as a result of their awareness of their limited time? What answers to these questions do they arrive at? Do these aging characters seem to become wiser with age?

  11. How does Russo portray the aging process? Do the older characters age gracefully and with dignity? Do they seem to have control over this process and how they handle it? Discuss.

  12. How do the characters use fantasy to escape their present condition? What examples of this are found in the novel? Does this kind of escapism prove to be an effective or destructive means of coping?

  13. Why did Gus wish to be mayor of North Bath? What did he hope to accomplish in this position? What obstacles does he face as he attempts to accomplish this? Is he ultimately successful? Why or why not?

  14. Evaluate the theme of complicity. Which of the characters believe they have been complicit and why do they believe this? Do you agree? Explain. Where else in the novel do we see complicity at work? What do you think causes the characters to be complicit and what are the consequences?

  15. In the chapter entitled “Grave Doings,” Carl asks what men are even good for. Sully admits that this is a question he has avoided asking himself his entire life. Does the novel ever answer this question? Why might the characters be so determined to avoid it?

  16. Explore the theme of legacy. How do characters who are deceased or who are referenced indirectly in the story influence the main characters of the book? Consider, for example, Miss Beryl, Rub’s parents, Becka, or Judge Flatt. How do they continue to have an impact on the lives of others and affect the community even in their absence? What might this indicate about the power of an individual, the weight of one’s actions, and the value of a single human life?

  17. Evaluate the treatment of prejudice and race in the book. Why is Miller hesitant to ask out Charice? Why does Raymer feel like a fool when Charice tells him what she plans to make him for dinner? How do the people of Bath treat Jerome? Are the residents of North Bath primarily an accepting people?

  18. Consider the treatment of women. What do the female characters seem to share in common? How are they treated by the men in the novel? How do the women view themselves? What do their stories,
when considered collectively, reveal about sexuality and womanhood?

  19. Russo named one of the chapters “Secrets”. What secrets do the characters in the novel keep? Do any of the characters ultimately choose to reveal their secrets? If so, what motivates them and what happens when they do? What might this indicate about truth telling or about shared experience?

  20. Is there any evidence of a system of justice in the world the characters inhabit? Explain. If you believe that there is, does the book seem to suggest that justice is something dealt by an outside force such as karma, God, or fate, or is it something that must be dealt by humankind? What injustices are presented in the novel? Do you believe that they could have been prevented or otherwise addressed? If so, how?

  21. Why didn’t Miss Beryl want Sully to enlist in the army? What does she think young people are always being asked to risk? Do you agree with her? Can readers tell how the veterans in the story have been affected or changed by their service?

  22. Evaluate the theme of forgiveness. What examples of forgiveness, if any, are evident in the book? What causes the characters to reach a place of forgiveness—or to be unable to forgive? What does Miss Beryl think is the real reason that people forgive others? What does the book suggest about self-forgiveness?

  23. Compare Everybody’s Fool with Russo’s 1993 novel Nobody’s Fool. What themes does Russo revisit in Everybody’s Fool? Who are some of the recurring characters and how have they changed or remained the same between books? What do you think the books offer collectively that they do not or cannot offer when considered singularly?

  Suggested Reading

  Franzen, Jonathan. The Corrections

  Jen, Gish. World and Town

  Joyce, Eddie. Small Mercies

  Perrotta, Tom. Little Children

  Robinson, Marilynne. Gilead

  Rowling, J. K. The Casual Vacancy

 
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