Fans of Richard Russo will agree: “Empire Falls” (2001) may have won the Pulitzer Prize, and “Straight Man” (1997) is one of the funniest books ever set on a college campus, but “Nobody’s Fool” (1993) occupies a uniquely tender spot in our hearts. That novel introduced the lovable misfits, dreamers and hard cases of the fictional town of North Bath, New York — a blue-collar backwater whose prospects dried up with its hot springs years ago.
The central character, Donald Sullivan, known as Sully, a mostly unemployed construction worker and practical joker, became even more unforgettable when played by Paul Newman in the 1994 movie, which also starred Jessica Tandy and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Now, Russo invites us back to North Bath with another comedy of errors called “Everybody’s Fool” (Alfred A. Knopf, 477 pp., $27.95). It takes place over a two-day period containing a funeral, a building collapse, an escaped cobra, a grave robbery, and multiple lightning strikes, assaults and auto thefts.
On a recent phone call, Newsday caught up with Russo to discuss the return of his motley crew.
How did you decide to write a sequel to “Nobody’s Fool”?
I had a firm policy in place on sequels, and it could be stated in a word: No. I like it when other people do it, Larry McMurtry with the “Lonesome Dove” characters, Updike’s Rabbit books, but it wasn’t for me.
This book is actually dedicated to an old writer pal of mine, Howard Frank Mosher. For the last 20 years, Howard has been asking me, What’s up with Sully? What’s up with Rub [Sully’s dimwitted sidekick]? Finally, it just became easier to write the book than to tell him I had no news.
Another part of it was a story I heard at a dinner party about a decade ago. It was about this cop who got into his wife’s car and discovered a remote that did not open his garage door. He immediately leapt to the conclusion that his wife must be having an affair, and he went all over town trying to open garage doors, thinking that if he found the one that worked he would find his wife’s lover.
I didn’t think about it again for seven or eight years. Then one day it came back to me and I connected it to Officer Raymer, Sully’s nemesis from “Nobody’s Fool.” That did two things for me. It gave me a wonderful comic premise that I thought I could get a lot of mileage out of, and it gave me another main character so Sully could take a step back.
It’s sad to think that Paul Newman and Philip Seymour Hoffman are not here for a movie of the sequel. Did those actors’ portrayals of Sully and Raymer come into your mind as you conceived their return?
This book was so much fun to write, but it was also very bittersweet. When actors like Newman and Hoffman say lines of dialogue of yours, when they become these characters on the screen, you suddenly realize you don’t have sole ownership anymore.
When I started work on “Everybody’s Fool,” I’d written 200 pages thinking about Philip Seymour Hoffman in the role of Raymer. Every time I got him into a new predicament, I was thinking of Philip doing it. When the news came that he had died, it completely threw me for a loop — with Philip now gone, I had to try to summon some other image. But it was just impossible.
Who could play Sully and Raymer now?
The director of “Nobody’s Fool” was the great Robert Benton [“Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Places in the Heart”], and he was one of the first people I sent the manuscript to. His response was, Don’t do it unless you get Clint Eastwood as Sully.
I don’t know. There’s just nobody I can think of. I’ve asked my wife, my daughter, everyone who’s read the book — we can’t come up with anybody.
Your devoted readers will have some ideas, I bet. But first they’ll have to accept that Raymer has been transformed: from nebbish nemesis to tragic hero.
I think the world can be divided into people who think they are smarter than they are and people who are much more intelligent than anyone realizes. Raymer’s in the second category. He’s been called a fool all his life. But when we live in his head, there’s a kind of dignity and wisdom that I think is out there in most people in larger quantities than we imagine.
Maybe I’m just an optimist myself.