I've been a fan of Russo's from way back, having particularly dug _The Risk Pool_. On the one hand I've always had a homeboy's appreciation for the way he captures upstate NY's rusted-town class divisions and social dynamics. (The guy has a brilliant ear for the very funny meanness between friends & family I recall all too well from high school and every other Thanksgiving.) But, that other hand, he also always surprised me--his characters would reveal in some small, throwaway line a complexity that boondoggled my sense of familiarity; just when we had them pegged (town drunk, ne'er-do-well, do-gooder) a line of dialogue that opened up their inner lives in ways both startling and alluring.
In this newest novel, for instance, without spoiling anything, late in the game a character whose impotence (and, frankly, seeming deer-like dumb docility) seemed her only real character trait casually spits out her assessment of a young disabled boy's probable short lifespan; told the boy may only live to be 30, she mutters, "Good." End scene.
I think that's among Russo's great strengths as a novelist--this keen eye for what's under the surface. I have felt, after reading most of his novels, that I knew now more about the people I grew up with than I did at the time I was growing up with them.
I have to admit being one of seven people who really didn't like _Empire Falls_, the first of his novels I couldn't finish. So I approached this new one with trepidation... almost wholly unfounded. This very long novel examines dual lives, two boys from another upstate smalltown who seem, in personality and life-history, opposites. And the whole novel, in an elaborate and precise structure of flashbacks and present moments and various characters' points-of-view, elucidates their differences while also illuminating their connections. It's amazing to me how he can, again in seemingly throwaway lines, reveal an element of plot (say on page 150) that substantively reconfigures our sense of that story--without ever (welll... almost ever) seeming artificially manipulative. Funny, smart, moving, and engrossing.
I was a bit frustrated by the last fifty pages, which can seem too pat in plot resolution and far less keen in its attention to racial dynamics. (Class is something Russo reveals in ways too much American fiction misses.) I felt like a couple black characters come on the scene, at book's end, in ways far more schematic than the five hundred preceding pages promised... but that's my one complaint, and it's a meager whine. The book is very good.