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.
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April 12, 1994
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Excerpt from Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo
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.