Review of The Whore’s Child And Other Stories, by Richard Russo
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/18/09
Perhaps the best way to judge a short story writer is to look at how he ends his tales. If the stories end on a high note, or end well, and leave the reader wanting more, then there’s a good chance the whole tale was pretty good. This serves as a good shorthand way for telling if a book of short fiction you are browsing through is worth buying. Just go to the end of the stories and if most are well written, buy the book. With that in mind, I state to you, if you come across Richard Russo’s The Whore’s Child And Other Stories in a mark down bin, please, just burn the book!
An even more obvious sign that the book’s publisher, in the case of Russo, Alfred A. Knopf, realizes that the book is garbage, is the fact that they tried to bloat the size of the book in its manufacture. In this case, by having a small sized book with large type, and plenty of white space, so that its 225 page size belies the fact that if it was in a typically sized book the seven tales within would in would barely reach 100 pages. This 2002 book was Russo’s horrid follow up to 1999’s Pulitzer Prize winning light and banal soap operatic fluff novel Empire Falls. As bad a long fictionist as he is, this book bares his many flaws even more starkly because the very length of a novel can hide a reliance on clichés by a flood of dull conversation and digressive detailing. Short stories do not generally have those luxuries of being able to hide horror with mere dull heft. Yet, for some reason, many bad critics have taken to comparing Russo to Raymond Carver, the reigning published patron saint of American short stories, although the only convergences the two writers really have is that both were male, white, and wrote of blue collar folk and wannabe artists. In every other respect, Russo is a mere finger painter with words compared to, say, a fictive master like Carver, who is a Picasso with his brushstrokes. Russo is a dreadfully bad writer, whose every page is littered with clichés, for he has no ability to craft tales of depth nor naturalism, and is utterly void of even the tiniest bits of wisdom, not to mention well crafted wordplay. His attempts at humor are, in the least, strained, and, at worst, nonexistent, compared with the natural humor that a Carver can offhandedly toss off in the midst of a serious scene, which works so effectively that a smile cannot help but cross his reader’s mien.
Russo’s tales are so baldly and blandly formulaic, too. In them, a repressed character finally deals with, or is forced to deal with some ‘deep, dark truth’ (see, I can write like Russo, if I swallow my welling upchuck) like- ooh, infidelity. Did I say that Russo wrote soap operatically? The first, and titular tale, The Whore’s Child, deals with a septuagenarian Belgian nun, Sister Ursula, the illegitimate daughter of a whore, who decides to use a fiction writing class to pen a memoir to deal with her past with her father, who turns out to have been her mother’s pimp. The tale is laced with such banalities as this:
‘This is a storytelling class, Sister. We’re all liars here. The
whole purpose of our enterprise is to become skilled in making things up, of
substituting our own truth for the truth. In this class we actually prefer a
well-told lie,’ I concluded, certain that this would dissuade her.
She patted my hand, as you might the hand of a child. ‘Never you mind,’ she then assured me, adjusting her wimple for the journey home. ‘My whole life has been a lie.’
It might be instructive, if, at this point, every time I quote Russo piece, that you count off the number of clichés that occur in its brief space. I’ll help you by stating that in these two short paragraphs there were no less than five hackneyed phrases or sentiments. But from here on out you’re on your own, ok? And since I stated, at this essay’s start, that the best way to judge a short story writer is to look at his ends, here’s the first tale’s end:
She looked off across the years, though, remembering, ‘Ah, but the flames,’ she said, her old eyes bright with a young woman’s fire. “They almost reached to heaven.’
Did you get that he equaled the first selection’s cliché count in less than half the space. Good! Maybe, one day, you can be a critic, too.
In Monhegan Light a misogynistic Hollywood photographer learns a ‘bitter truth’ visiting Martha’s Vineyard: his dead wife was long cuckolding him with a painter who truly understood her ‘inner beauty’. The photographer and his younger girlfriend travel to a Maine island so he can confront the painter/lover, who immortalized his wife on canvas. Filled with outrage, his art sends the photographer into despair that he was a failure in loving his wife, as well as his new girlfriend. Pure soap opera fluff, with all the requisite clichés. Here’s how it ends:
Still, he couldn’t have been more surprised when she took his hand there in the darkness, leaned toward him and whispered, without ever taking her eyes off the screen, ‘Oh, I love you, I love you, I love you.’
Did you cringe at the last quote? Good for you. You’re learning.
In The Farther You Go a father describes his own failure as a failure of imagination. In his case, his gift to himself of a ridable lawn mower only exacerbates his post-surgery prostate condition, and he plans to bribe his son in law into leaving him and his wife alone. Here is the ending:
Night is coming and most of the trip back will be in the dark, but the car is warm and there will be no harm if I fall asleep. Faye knows how to get us home.
He seems to be ending each tale with subsequently less clichés. Will he actually be void of one in any of these stories’ ends?
In Joyride a mother and son go on a- you got it, Thelma And Louse-like cross-country road trip, to hide from ‘troubles they cannot outrun.’ The tale is told, from nearly thirty years’ distance, by the son, but it is aborted, as the mother can never deal with her need to flee her own life, instead blaming their failed escape on him and his troubles. The tale ends with two horrid clichés in its end paragraph’s first sentence:
But the worst truths are contained in our many silences….
In Buoyancy a retired academic comes to learn that he is the weaker partner in a marriage to a woman of frail psyche. In the story’s climax, the old man wanders on a nudist beach, looking for his wife, and almost collapses from sunstroke, and has a vision of a younger couple that tries to help him, fearing the woman:
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.
Here is its closing paragraph. Note how it was a pretty good ending, but damn it, old Russo just can’t help himself, as in the last sentence he has to ballocks things up:
Down in the empty street he saw a woman who looked like June, though he couldn’t be sure, not anymore. She had stopped at the crosswalk, though there was no traffic and no signal, and seemed uncertain whether to head up the street toward him or in the opposite direction. Whoever the woman was, she appeared to be listening, as if to the distant sounds of the sea, perhaps imagining how it felt to be borne gently aloft on a wave.
Poison follows yet another middle aged male protagonist in mid-life crisis mode. He is a midlist author with no ambition, and his pal is a leftist with a young trophy wife. Here is how its last paragraph starts:
I smile. No one knows me better than this woman….
It was an awful place, but Lin understood it was as perfectly real as every place else in the world, which was large beyond imagining, containing every single place he himself had ever been or never would see in his entire life.
This is the only tale where Russo even attempts to undermine his bald clichés at the end, and still fails:
It was into this entirely different world that Linwood Hart now fell asleep, sadly grateful that he was not and never had been, nor ever would be, its center.
Of course, the basic problem with these tales, apart from Russo’s execrable prose, is that there really is no immanent drama to them. These are all well off white folks, mostly academics, who titter and whine, then fall back into their Stepford lives, with no real insight gained. Russo is always eager to explain in his tales. He never leaves anything unsaid nor implied. He dumbs down his melodramas to their lowest common denominator, so that boons will feel they’ve received wisdom while the smarter reader will feel urinated upon by his condescension. Richard Russo is worse than a hack, he is the very living definition of deliteracy, the total and wholesale dumbing down of true literature into refried ABC Afterschool Special rejects.
Yet, there is one unwitting moment of prescience in the book, in which Russo explains, through his titular tale’s narrator, exactly why he writes so banally, to accommodate the moronic mindsets of MFA grads who need to be spoonfed everything, over and again, and it comes in this description of the narrator’s writing class discussion of Sister Ursula’s story. While it is one of the better written passages in the book, if only because it is straightforward A to B to C narration, without embellishment, it captures, unfortunately, all that is wrong with the American, if not world, reader today:
Sister Ursula’s first installment ended here, and her fellow students approached the discussion of it as one would an alien spacecraft. Several had attended Catholic schools where they’d been tutored by nuns, and they weren't sure, despite my encouragement, that they were allowed to be critical of this one. The material itself was foreign to them; they’d never encountered anything like it in the workshop. On the plus side, Sister Ursula’s story had a character in it, and the character was placed in a dire situation, and those were good things for stories to do. On the other hand, the old nun’s idiom was imperfect, her style stiff and old-fashioned, and the story seemed to be moving forward without exactly getting anywhere. It reminded them of stories they’d heard other elderly people tell, tales that even the tellers eventually managed to forget the point of, narratives that would gradually peter out with the weak insistence that all these events really did happen. ‘It's a victim story,’ one student recognized. ‘The character is being acted on by outside forces, but she has no choices, which means there can be no consequences to anything she does. If she doesn’t participate in her own destiny, where's the story?’
Not having taken the beginning and intermediate courses, Sister Ursula was much enlightened by these unanticipated critiques, and she took feverish notes on everything that was said. ‘I liked it, though,’ added the student who’d identified it as a victim story. ‘It’s different.’ By which he seemed to mean that Sister Ursula herself was different….
Unfortunately, Richard Russo is not, in any way, different from the thousands of bad writers the creative writing puppy mills have spat out in the last fifty years, and that has consequences, such as the publication of many bad books, of which The Whore’s Child And Other Stories is only an unfortunately sterlingly bad example of. As I recommended earlier- burn the damned thing, and at least know that the warmth of its destruction is small compensation for the shiver its hollow timbre left in your mind.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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