on 9 October 1998
Richard Russo writes with a prose that is realistic, engaging and ultimately enjoyable. Much like "Nobodys Fool" and "Straight man" he fuses humor and his unique perspective on life into a highly descriptive, light-hearted, fast paced package of a book. Risk Pool relays the story and thoughts of a ten year old boy growing up in a small midwest town in the 50's. The story follows Ned, the main character, through his life reflecting on the impact that his relationship with his previously absent father and slightly disturbed mother have had on him. Once again Russo has managed to create characters who are intriguing, humorous and utterly realistic. The story itself tends to be a little bittersweet (both sweet and bitter, bitter and sweet) by the final chapter but satisfying none the less.
on 14 June 2002
This is an absolute favourite of mine, Russo's pace, and intimacy with each character as they socialize with the others, is one of the greatest insights into peoples behaviour towards one another that I am aware of. Loved it, as have all that read on my recommendation.
The scope is at a biographical level, where later books are a little more ambitious. The result is a keen, humerous, sympathetic and warm insight into a nucleus group of people living and surviving the decline of small, New England mill town America.
Richard Russo's 1988 novel The Risk Pool provides another example of how this outstanding author is able to transform a story of small-town America into a novel with magical and, at times, profound qualities. Russo achieves this primarily through the deep and humane development of a range of compelling characters, and the creation of a funny and poignant narrative which lovingly displays the whole gamut of human emotions. Russo has, of course, achieved this feat brilliantly in other of his novels, notably in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls and The Bridge Of Sighs, but, arguably, surpasses these efforts in The Risk Pool.
The Risk Pool tells the story of father and son, respectively, Sam and Ned Hall, the former a hell-raising drunk who has apparently shunned everything worthwhile in his life, the latter a studied and reserved boy, and their antagonistic struggle for survival in Russo's fictional town of Mohawk. Russo's depiction of the vulnerable Ned's ambivalence towards his father, particularly in the wake of his mother's estrangement and breakdown, is outstanding. However, in terms of the narrative ambition of The Risk Pool, Russo does not limit himself to his two central protagonists, but has created a veritable Dickensian cast of brilliant characters, including that of Sam's nemesis Drew Littler, son of his 'girlfriend' Eileen, with whom he continually battles for physical and emotional supremacy, and Sam's pal, apparent ne'er-do-well and waster, the negro Wussy, a magnificently drawn literary figure, who young Ned takes to his heart. In relation to Russo's character Sam Hall, I did also wonder whether he had been named with the anti-hero of the famous song of the same name in mind (incidentally, covered by Johnny Cash on his album American Hero IV: The Man Comes Around).
The Risk Pool reminds me, in various ways, of a number of my favourite books and authors - in terms of the way Russo captures the essence of youth, To Kill A Mockingbird, Donna Tartt's My Little Friend and Mark Twain's writing - in terms of the depiction of ambition, and the apparently unachievable, mansion-on-a-hill dream, The Great Gatsby - and, in the way Russo has assembled such a brilliant cast of characters, with a mixed-up, but ambitious youth at the centre, Dickens' Great Expectations. High praise, indeed.
Near the end of this tragicomic novel, a character asks to be taken home, a request which epitomizes the sad ironies in this generational saga, since the reader cannot help but wonder, in this case, "Where, exactly, is home?" and more importantly, "What is home?"
Young Ned Hall, the narrator, is a child when the story opens in upstate Mohawk, New York, in the 1950s, the son of Sam Hall, a veteran who has returned from the war with a desire to celebrate--"Not celebrating victory...celebrating life. His." Sam, a drunk, a gambler, a philanderer, and eventually a divorced father, is at the bottom of any insurance company's "risk pool," a man both self-absorbed and self-destructive. Popular in bars and pool halls, Sam "involves men in his lunacy by sheer force of his will." Ned's mother, on the other hand, is sensitive, defeated by her life, and often under psychiatric care. When his mother suffers a breakdown and his previously absent father claims him, Ned manages somehow to adapt to the uncertainties of his new life and survive his unusual adolescence.
Mohawk, a blue-collar town, is filled with people whose stories come alive as they intersect with Sam Hall and Ned. Colorful descriptions of the town's sights, sounds, and smells; lively evocations of smoke-filled bars, pool halls, and card games; and hilarious accounts of obligatory fishing trips and treks in the woods emphasize the differences between Ned's reality and the more nurturing environment he might have had in a more stable home and family.
Russo extends Ned's story beyond the limits of Mohawk in the second half of the book when Ned goes off to college and into the professional world, pointedly illustrating Ned's self-destructive behavior, his worries about his fidelity (or lack of it), and his tendency to keep moving, even into his late thirties. Though Ned distances himself from his parents and from Mohawk, he eventually begins to wonder how much he may be a product of the ultimate risk pool, his genetic heritage.
An odd assortment of characters comes alive through Russo's dialogue, which conveys their personalities, relationships, resentments, and past history and creates a panoramic study of both people and place. His themes of identity, personal responsibility, and connection to family are fully developed within this sprawling saga and its personal stories. The second half of the novel, which takes place outside of Mohawk, does lose some of its charm when its connections to place are lost, but the novel richly rewards those looking for a big novel with well-drawn characters and the wry humor which evolves from real life. Mary Whipple
I enjoyed this very much indeed. More, in fact, than 'Nobody's Fool'. The plot of this one is more straightforward, being fundamentally about the relationship between a man and his son. There are many characters in here I think I will remember for a long time, notably Rockhead and Wussy. This book reminds me of books I read decades ago by people like Mailer and Herman Wouk and even Thomas Wolfe, old time American writers steeped in the old oak of the American dream before novels got to be all about pharmaceuticals and people hating each other.
Quite early on Rockhead and Wussy take our young hero on a fishing trip, a fishing trip which celebrates fishing as much as anything I've read, and which reminds me of a fishing trip Hemingway narrates in I think 'The Sun Also Rises'. Anyway the important thing is this book is great fun.