In his slyly funny and moving new novel, the author of The Risk Pool follows the unexpected operation of grace in a deadbeat, upstate New York town--and in the lives of the unluckiest of its citizens. Soon to be a major motion picture starring Paul Newman, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith, and Jessica Tandy. Author reading tour.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Richard Russo lives in coastal Maine with his wife and their two daughters. He has written five novels: Mohawk, The Risk Pool, Nobody’s Fool, Straight Man, and Empire Falls, and a collection of stories, The Whore’s Child.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Upper Main Street in the village of North Bath, just above the town's two-block-long business district, was quietly residential for three more blocks, then became even more quietly rural along old Route 27A, a serpentine two-lane blacktop that snaked its way through the Adirondacks of northern New York, with their tiny, down-at-the-heels resort towns, all the way to Montreal and prosperity. The houses that bordered Upper Main, as the locals referred to it-although Main, from its "lower" end by the IGA and Tastee Freez through its upper end at the Sans Souci, was less than a quarter mile-were mostly dinosaurs, big, aging clapboard Victorians and sprawling Greek Revivals that would have been worth some money if they were across the border in Vermont and if they had not been built as, or converted into, two- and occasionally three-family dwellings and rented out, over several decades, as slowly deteriorating flats. The most impressive feature of Upper Main was not its houses, however, but the regiment of ancient elms, whose upper limbs arched over the steeply pitched roofs of these elderly houses, as well as the street below, to green cathedral effect, bathing the street in breeze-blown shadows that masked the peeling paint and rendered the sloping porches and crooked caves of the houses quaint in their decay. City people on their way north, getting off the interstate in search of food and fuel, often slowed as they drove through the village and peered nostalgically out their windows at the old houses, wondering idly what they cost and what they must be like inside and what it would be like to live in them and walk to the village in the shade. Surely this would be a better life. On their way back to the city after the long weekend, some of the most powerfully affected briefly considered getting off the interstate again to repeat the experience, perhaps even look into the real estate market. But then they remembered how the exit had been tricky, how North Bath hadn't been all that close to the highway, how they were getting back to the city later than they planned as it was, and how difficult it would be to articulate to the kids in the backseat why they would even want to make such a detour for the privilege of driving up a tree-lined street for all of three blocks, before turning around and heading back to the interstate. Such towns were pretty, green graves, they knew, and so the impulse to take a second look died unarticulated and the cars flew by the North Bath exit without slowing down.
Perhaps they were wise, for what attracted them most about the three-block stretch of Upper Main, the long arch of giant elms, was largely a deceit, as those who lived beneath them could testify. For a long time the trees had been the pride of the neighborhood, having miraculously escaped the blight of Dutch elm disease. Only recently, without warning, the elms had turned sinister. The winter of 1979 brought a terrible ice storm, and the following summer the leaves on almost half of the elms strangled on their branches, turning sickly yellow and falling during the dog days of August instead of mid-October. Experts were summoned, and they arrived in three separate vans, each of which sported a happy tree logo, and the young men who climbed out of these vans wore white coats, as if they imagined themselves doctors. They sauntered in circles around each tree, picked at its bark, tapped its trunk with hammers as if the trees were suspected of harboring secret chambers, picked up swatches of decomposing leaves from the gutters and held them up to the fading afternoon light.
One white-coated man drilled a hole into the elm on Beryl Peoples' front terrace, stuck his gloved index finger into the tree, then tasted, making a face. Mrs. Peoples, a retired eighth-grade teacher who had been watching the man from behind the blinds of her front room since the vans arrived, snorted. "What did he expect it to taste like?" she said out loud. "Strawberry shortcake?" Beryl Peoples, "Miss Beryl" as she was known to nearly everyone in North Bath, had been living alone long enough to have grown accustomed to the sound of her own voice and did not always distinguish between the voice she heard in her ears when she spoke and the one she heard in her mind when she thought. It was the same person, to her way of thinking, and she was no more embarrassed to talk to herself than she was to think to herself. She was pretty sure she couldn't stifle one voice without stifling the other, something she had no intention of doing while she still had so much to say, even if she was the only one listening.
For instance, she would have liked to tell the young man who tasted his glove and made a face that she considered him to be entirely typical of this deluded era. If there was a recurring motif in today's world, a world Miss Beryl, at age eighty, was no longer sure she was in perfect step with, it was cavalier open-mindedness. "How do you know what it's like if you don't try it?" was the way so many young people put it. To Miss Beryl's way of thinking-and she prided herself on being something of a free-thinker-you often could tell, at least if you were paying attention, and the man who'd just tasted the inside of the tree and made a face had no more reason to be disappointed than her friend Mrs. Gruber, who'd announced in a loud voice in the main dining room of the Northwoods Motor Inn that she didn't care very much for either the taste or the texture of the snail she'd just spit into her napkin. Miss Beryl had been unmoved by her friend's grimace. "What was there about the way it looked that made you think it would be good?"
Mrs. Gruber had not responded to this question. Having spit the snail into the napkin, she'd become deeply involved with the problem of what to do with the napkin.
"It was gray and slimy and nasty looking," Miss Beryl reminded her friend.
Mrs. Gruber admitted this was true, but went on to explain that it wasn't so much the snail itself that had attracted her as the name. "They got their own name in French," she reminded Miss Beryl, stealthily exchanging her soiled cloth napkin for a fresh one at an adjacent table. "Escargot."
There's also a word in English, Miss Beryl had pointed out. Snail. Probably horse doo had a name in French also, but that didn't mean God intended for you to eat it.
Still, she was privately proud of her friend for trying the snail, and she had to acknowledge that Mrs. Gruber was more adventurous than most people, including two named Clive, one of whom she'd been married to, the other of whom she'd brought into the world. Where was the middle ground between a sense of adventure and just plain sense? Now there was a human question.
The man who tasted the inside of the elm must have been an even bigger fool than Mrs. Gruber, Miss Beryl decided, for he'd no sooner made the face than he took off his work glove, put his finger back into the hole and tasted again, probably to ascertain whether the foul flavor had its origin in the tree or the glove. To judge from his expression, it must have been the tree.
After a few minutes the white-coated men collected their tools and reloaded the happy tree vans. Miss Beryl, curious, went out onto the porch and stared at them maliciously until one of the men came over and said, "Howdy."
"Doody," Miss Beryl said.
The young man looked blank.
"What's the verdict?" she asked.
The young man shrugged, bent back at the waist and looked up into the grid of black branches. "They're just old, is all," he explained, returning his attention to Miss Beryl, with whom he was approximately eye level, despite the fact that he was standing on the bottom step of her front porch while she stood at the top. "Hell, this one here"-he pointed at Miss Beryl's elm-"if it was a person, would be about eighty."
The young man made this observation without apparent misgiving, though the tiny woman to whom he imparted the information, whose back was shaped like an elbow, was clearly the tree's contemporary in terms of his own analogy. "We could maybe juice her up a little with some vitamins," he went on, "but-" He let the sentence dangle meaningfully, apparently confident that Miss Beryl possessed sufficient intellect to follow his drift. "You have a nice day," he said, before returning to his happy tree van and driving away.
If the "juicing up" had any effect, so far as Miss Beryl could tell, it was deleterious. That same winter a huge limb off Mrs. Boddicker's elm, under the weight of accumulated snow and sleet, had snapped like a brittle bone and come crashing down, not onto Mrs. Boddicker's roof but onto the roof of her neighbor, Mrs. Merriweather, swatting the Merriweather brick chimney clean off. When the chimney descended, it reduced to rubble the stone birdbath of Mrs. Gruber, the same Mrs. Gruber who had been disappointed by the snail. Since that first incident, each winter had yielded some calamity, and lately, when the residents of Upper Main peered up into the canopy of overarching limbs, they did so with fear instead of their customary religious affection, as if God Himself had turned on them. Scanning the maze of black limbs, the residents of Upper Main identified particularly dangerous-looking branches in their neighbors' trees and recommended costly pruning. In truth, the trees were so mature, their upper branches so high, so distant from the elderly eyes that peered up at them, that it was anybody's guess as to which tree a given limb belonged, whose fault it would be if it descended.
The business with the trees was just more bad luck, and, as the residents of North Bath were fond of saying, if it weren't for bad luck they wouldn't have any at all. This was not strictly true, for the community owed its very existence to geological good fortune in the form of several excellent mineral springs, and in colonial days the...
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