- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 1, 2002

By Richard Russo
Alfred A. Knopf, $24, 225 pages

Richard Russo is turning into a literary Midas. His comic stories about small-town America with their serious undertones and quirky characters are striking gold with readers and critics alike, and last year he won a Pulitzer for "Empire Falls" a novel about a charming loser in a crumbling Maine town.
This year, the author's first short-story collection "The Whore's Child and other Stories," came out to you guessed it yet another batch of good reviews.
This time, the author, who normally doesn't skimp on words in his brick-sized novels, is mostly spare and precise in his storytelling. His tone is more somber and the stories are serious with a comic undertone, rather than vice versa.
But the themes are the same: Things and people are not always what they appear to be, and our most sacred truths, the pillars of our emotional beings, are often bogus; we may strive for self-discovery and success, but self-deception and resignation are never far behind.
The title story, "The Whore's Child," may be the most poignant in this respect. A nun signs up for a creative writing class where the assignment is to write a 25-page piece of fiction. The professor says mastering fiction is like becoming a master of telling lies. The nun writes about a young child, a daughter of a prostitute, who lands in a convent school. The nuns treat her with disdain. God might forgive her for being born to a prostitute. But they sure won't.
In the meantime, the young girl is dreaming of her noble, handsome father to appear and save her from an isolated, boring and repressive life as a nun.
The father never appears and she reluctantly takes her vows and becomes Sister Ursula. At the end of the class, the nun presents her work for other students to critique. They say it's well-written and rings so true. That's because it is true. Instead of writing fiction, Sister Ursula has presented the class with her condensed memoirs.
One student says she's amazed the story's young nun never realized the father's deceit.
He was far from the noble man he pretended to be. "He was the mother's pimp, right? Is there another explanation?" the student says. Sister Ursula realizes that her factual story, pretending to be fiction, indeed is fiction. What a sour twist. She has lived a lie, the father she showered with adoration, was a crook.
In the next story in this seven-story collection, "Monhegan Light," we encounter Martin, a California cinematographer who doesn't start appreciating and loving his ex-wife Laura now deceased until he meets her secret lover, a Maine painter who captured her true beauty in his paintings.
"This trip wasn't so much about saying goodbye to his wife as saying hello," writes Mr. Russo.
"He'd fallen in love with her, truly in love, the moment he'd uncrated the painting back in L.A. and seen his wife through another man's eyes." It's a bleak story where no lessons are learned and mistakes are bound to be repeated. The hotshot L.A. cinematographer, accompanied by his new, much-younger girlfriend, Beth, arrives to admonish the old painter's immoral behavior. But he can't.
All the painter is guilty of is loving Laura, something Martin was incapable of doing, until now. When it's too late. What's worse, Martin realizes that he probably will sell Beth short, too. "What folly love was," Martin thought, and then returns to Hollywood, pouring his passion into yet another film.
Another slice-of-life tale about self-discovery is "Joy Ride," which tells the story of a Camden, Me., teenager who goes on a cross-country trip with his mother in search of a better life. The mother is tired of her husband and wants to start anew in California. But it's the kind of dream that is best when one doesn't try to actualize it.
Mother and son, driving a Ford, make stops in places like Joplin, Mo., where their hotel is overbooked by a Baptist convention, and Tucumcari, N. Mex., where they meet a man who eats a five-pound steak and another who sexually assaults the mother.
They never make it to California. Instead they run out of money, sell the Ford and fly back to Maine, reuniting with the dad. Later, the mother pretends that the trip was just a joy ride. She never planned to leave the father, she says.
In "The Farther You Go," a daughter tries to copy her parents lives, thinking that will make her happy. Disastrous results ensue.
In "Buoyancy," a self-conscious professor feels threatened by the strength and beauty of youth. In "Poison," a successful middle-aged writer and his wife plan to prepare a simple meal at their beautiful beach house in anticipation of a visit from an envious, less successful friend.
The last story, "The Mysteries of Linwood Hart," is about a kid named Lin Hart. He's an only child of separated parents and plays baseball, not very well. He is, as all children, in the center of the universe. But at the end of the story, as his separated parents reunite, he realizes that he has little power over other people's lives, and very little over his own.
Mr. Russo has a wonderful eye for the tragicomic. He displays it in all his work and "The Whore's Child and Other Stories," is no exception. But the tone is much more serious. Where he would normally turn personal weaknesses into pure comedy, he lets them stand by themselves here. There is no pun, there is no punch. It simply is.
When Sister Ursula discovers that not only has religion deceived her, but also her idolized father, we don't laugh, we don't cry. We nod in recognition. It's just life.
He shows us so accurately that when life gets too messy or when we fail, we start to revise our personal history. The mother in "Joy Ride," denies ever trying to leave her husband. Her cross-country trip was just that, a trip, not an escape attempt.
Mr. Russo's stories are full of very likeable, human characters who don't learn from their mistakes, who think they're on the road to self-discovery, while really, self-deception is sitting in the driver's seat.

Gabriella Boston is a reporter on the features desk of The Washington Times.

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