The Whore’s Child

By Richard Russo

Richard Russo is the kind of writer who likes to make you feel at home. In his earlier books, including last year’s Pulitzer Prize-winner Empire Falls, “home” usually referred to some burned over industrial town in upstate New York, Pennsylvania or Maine full of decent, hard-working, long-suffering folk, with a few bad eggs thrown in to make the plot work. The stories in The Whore’s Child take place in the same general locale, but have moved to cottage country. With a couple of exceptions, the narrators are now older and better off. This is Russo in retirement, even more “big-hearted” and “amiable” (to quote from what is supposed to be praise on the dustjacket) than usual. It is Raymond Carver meets Norman Rockwell, and the latter has the upper hand.

In five of the seven stories the narrator is, like Russo himself, a retired English instructor. This may shed some light on why they read like exercises in a creative writing seminar. The lessons of Carver are now the mere stock-in-trade of the professional creative writer. The laconic dialogue, emotional understatement and conscious indirection are so familiar, even the narrative dodges and swerves meant to level the more dramatic moments have become predictable.

One thinks of words like “professional” and “competent” to describe this kind of writing. You can see Russo weighing his effects, even in the deliberate come-on of the title (“The Whore’s Child! I wonder what that’s all about?”). Add to this his big-hearted amiability and you have a recipe for quiet disaster. Russo shares a close resemblance to Stephen King – his locale, his handling of children, his cozy faith in a benevolent providence – but without any of the horror writer’s imagination or sense of evil. Bad things happen in these stories – adultery, betrayal, domestic abuse – but no one really means it. And rest assured, things will all work out in the end.

The final story shares the point-of-view of a boy observing his parents’ broken marriage. He joins a summer baseball league. The coach of the team is attempting to horn in on his mother by painting her house. In the finale the coach convinces the chubby misfit who is the team’s disastrous pitcher to channel his rage into throwing strikes. “If you throw it like that, like you’re real, real mad, we’ll win. Can you throw it like you’re mad?” he asks. Well! Can he ever! Three strikes in a row! A real Adam Sandler moment. And then the team’s “best hitter” steps to the plate and with a crack of the bat the ball comes hurtling toward the narrator . . .

Cut. Of course. And we find out later how he saves the game, in a mock-heroic kind of way. And his dad gets back together with his mom. And the coach accepts this with Russo-esque resignation.

This is all so bad it makes one think of the debate over whether Norman Rockwell was a real artist or only an illustrator. There are occasions reading Russo when you have to wonder if, even given his technical strengths – and he does teach a good story – he is really a writer. Like the narrator in the story “Poison”, an author now flush with Hollywood cash who has drifted away from his small town roots, you get the sense that his heart is elsewhere. The result is the literary equivalent of Muzak: a non-aggressive imitation of fiction; a rhythm without a pulse.

Review first published July 6, 2002.


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