Trajectory by Richard Russo (Story Collection, 2017).
The latest book from Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Russo is a collection of four novella-length works. Three previously saw publication elsewhere, while the fourth is new. They all display Russo’s skills in characterization, as well as deftly presenting their various settings.
In “Horseman,” a young college professor confronts plagiarism from one of her students and in the process has to deal with a university’s internal politics as well as her own painfully repressed family issues just ahead of the school’s Thanksgiving break. It’s a compelling and moving tale of personal growth.
While that first work’s protagonist is a young, rather obsessively dedicated academic, the lead character in “Voice” is an older professor. He has been pushed into semi-retirement by a disturbing miscalculation regarding a profoundly autistic student. The details of that unintended scandal slowly emerge, even as he tries to deal with his manipulative and long-estranged brother while on a group tour of Venice, Italy. Again, we have an intelligent yet somewhat repressed personality dealing with past and present pain, and ultimately growing beyond it with enhanced self-knowledge and acceptance.
These two stories are very well done and certainly not mere thematic rehashes of one another. But I do confess that after reading them I was somewhat concerned about the lack of variety in the central characters profession. Was the entire book to be an endless procession of college Profs exorcising their personal demons?
Well, as the next novella shows, no.
“Intervention” centers on a New England realtor already dealing with the economic ravages of the Great Recession when an ominous medical problem brings to mind his late father’s surrender at the end of a strangely passionless life. Was Ray fated to follow in his Dad’s ultimately hopeless footsteps or was he prepared to fight for his soul–not to mention his life?
And in “Milton and Marcus,” the book’s one never-before-seen novella, a past-his-prime novelist tries for a desperately needed comeback as a screenwriter. His wife is ill, there’s no health insurance and it all revolves around a pair of often-teamed movie legends. The one the story’s first-person narrator knew, respected and for whom he came up for a movie idea years ago, is dead. Now, out of nowhere, the other one expresses interest in expanding the idea into a full-blown buddy movie–starring himself, of course. Will this hard-pressed but honorable man allow himself to be used by the Hollywood icon? And in the end, will the star betray him? Will our hero’s self-esteem (not to mention his wife) survive? It’s a fascinating, compassionate and at times dark-humored portrait of the movie industry, topped off with a satirical last couple lines that’s just about perfect.
So, yes, all four of these pieces have certain things in common–decent, if trouble-plagued and somewhat repressed central characters surviving as best they can (and growing into personal acceptance of themselves, weaknesses and all). Four very real and impressive, not-short but less-than-book-length stories—all of them well worth reading.