Most fiction readers, if they're honest, will admit that how fiction writers do what they do is an absolute mystery to them. I'm not talking about the writers who wow us with rich, incident-crammed plots or wild flights of language. I'm talking about the subtler mystery of writers who impart a sense of urgency and weight to closely observed tales in which, plotwise at least, not much seems to happen. It's an especially baffling accomplishment coming from writers who stay securely within the bounds of naturalism. Nothing drives me to despair more quickly than drab, earnest stories of ordinary, mundane lives, full of details whose dishwater dullness is proffered as a badge of honesty and authenticity. To put it bluntly, I'd rather eat glass than read Raymond Carver.
In his first book of short fiction, "The Whore's Child and Other Stories," Richard Russo doesn't stray from naturalism; the quotidian details are recognizable, and the epiphanies are kept on an appropriately modest scale. And there wasn't one of these seven stories that felt to me like a chore to read. All the elements of middle-class despair are in place: dissolving marriages (seen from the points of view of children and parents), adultery, the encroachments and indignities of age, homes that are both havens and traps.
My guesses as to why Russo avoids the pitfalls of naturalism keep coming back to the basics: He's more interested in communicating to his readers than in achieving a washed-out preciousness in his prose. And, with the exception of "The Farther You Go," which resolves itself rather too neatly and features the closest thing here to a wholly unlikable protagonist, Russo hasn't given despair the upper hand. For one thing, he's funny. And for another, the characters aren't puppets at the mercy of existential dread. They've chosen their own predicaments.
The most common occurrence in these stories is a character who confronts a truth about the past that he or she has denied for years. In the title story, a nun using a creative writing class to compose her memoirs faces the inevitable truth about the father she idolized. In "Buoyancy" (in many ways, the best story in the book) a retired academic who has lived on eggshells since his wife's nervous breakdown years before is forced to admit that he's the helpless one in the marriage.
This story features Russo's most unnerving moment of epiphany. Awakening on a nude beach where he and his wife have gone to discreetly sunbathe, the professor finds himself alone. As his search for his wife takes on an increasingly frantic feel, the sun and his age take their toll on him. A younger couple, who have smeared themselves with the mud the beach has to offer, come to his aid. The man's vision of the young woman is an indelible image, an apparition of death in life, of youth marked by the inescapable ravages of age:
"Was it a young woman or a hag? Incredibly, she was both. Her skin, from head to toe, was a dry, cracking, lifeless gray. The figure resembled, frighteningly, a photographic negative. Its naked breasts were large and full, the dry seaweed between her legs the color of pale ash. Only her eyes were white until her smile -- lewd, he thought -- revealed rows of sharp, perfect white teeth."
There's a brutal compassion in the man's vision that neither spares the character nor punishes him unduly. The appeal of these stories is that Russo has, thankfully, chosen not to punish his readers either.