Roberta Brown-Jones, Nederland. I have never been a huge fan of the short-story genre, much preferring novels because they provide a world that I can enter and savor for a longer time. However, I have really enjoyed Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Richard Russo’s writing in some of his past novels, so I opted to read his latest collection of stories, Trajectory, and was not disappointed.
Russo has a talent for presenting myriad human foibles in ways that are both funny and poignant. He does this by compelling the reader to feel empathy for even the most imperfect characters, showing that there is always the possibility for redemption or at least, understanding. His writing often demonstrates that our personal trajectories, for better and worse, inform our behaviors well beyond childhood.
Each story in this collection is more like a novella and gives the reader fully developed characters despite their shortened length. Russo begins with a story called “The Horseman.” In it, he presents an English professor character confronting a student who has submitted a plagiarized paper. Through flashbacks to the professor’s graduate school time, Russo widens the issue of plagiarism to uncover deeper issues of authenticity.
In “Voice,” Russo explores two aging brothers whose relationship has never been ideal. With the backdrop of Venice, Italy, the brothers reunite to take part in a group tour. Through a series of events, Nate must work through the childhood hardships that have formed his and his brother Julian’s characters. The anger Nate feels for his brother’s selfishness and false suavity by the story’s end is diminished as he contemplates a possible reconciliation.
The next story, “Intervention,” deals with the realities of long-term relationships and how the inevitable health crises that punctuate life are handled. When Ray, a realtor in a small Maine town, receives a cancer diagnosis, he is compelled to reassess the reasons for his reluctance to seek expert help. Russo manages to take even this serious subject and interject humorous observations throughout.
“Milton and Marcus” lays out the dichotomy between famous people and “ordinary” people. Taking on Hollywood types, the story highlights the fact that as much as we may criticize famous people’s absurdly lavish lifestyles, we often have an underlying envy of their seeming invincibility. Russo unmasks these types and examines their narcissism and horrific lack of humanity.
A common theme in much of Russo’s writing is the difficulty people have in escaping familial patterns. In his writing, he demonstrates how these patterns permeate one’s life, but he is also optimistic that it is possible, even if late in life, to transcend them, allowing for more compassion and connection.
In addition, Russo presents characters whose exteriors belie their characters in both positive and negative ways. The seemingly attractive, suave characters often are the most reprehensible. In contrast, the ostensibly insignificant, less physically attractive characters often become the heroes of the story.
In the end, I loved all of Russo’s imperfect protagonists in this collection of stories, in part because Russo allowed them to demonstrate their imperfections as he revealed their underlying capacity for goodness. Each story ends on a note that makes the reader feel that despite the inevitable cruelties of life, there can be moments of joy and hope that keep all of us going.
Roberta Brown-Jones is a Library Assistant at the Nederland Community Library.