'Interventions' Review: Russo Clings to the Power of the Printed Page

Author Richard Russo wouldn't mind people putting down their Kindles and iPads for just a moment.

The famed author behind "Empire Falls" and "Bridge of Sighs" is back with "Interventions," a family affair of sorts bringing four of his shorter stories to the public. The new package features three short stories and one novella, all bundled together in an elegantly crafted packaged created by Russo's daughter, Kate Russo.

The presentation is certainly appealing, full of tastefully restrained designs that harmonize with Russo's elegant prose. But the real draw are the tales being told, although the longest one spun here lacks the boldness of Russo's best work.

"High and Dry"

Originally published in Granta, "High and Dry" lets Russo examine the ambivalent feelings he still has for his rural upbringing in a nonfiction format. The town of Gloversville, N.Y. was once home to a bustling glove-making community. But time marched on, globalism took route, and the town slowly sunk into mediocrity.

Russo fixates on the horrors of those glove-making factories, like the chemicals which made the workers' skin peel off in layers. It's a union-friendly lament against cruel capitalism as well as a portrait of an older man still processing the emotions swirling around his formative years. He still wonders if a twist or two of fate had not happened if he would have spent the bulk of his adult life back in Gloversville, and what kind of person he would be now as a result.

Russo previously visited Gloversville-like towns in his work. But his direct dissection in "High and Dry" comes off as both heartfelt and commendable no matter what town you once called home.

"Horseman" 

The weakest story in the collection introduces us to a self-absorbed professor wrangling over her professional and personal attachments. By day she's an arid academic dressed down by a prestigious colleague. But her home life appears equally challenging. Her son is mentally challenged and requires a kind of nurturing that doesn't come easily to her. Her husband barely factors in the tale, a sign that their relationship isn't what it once was - assuming her stoic nature allowed for a passionate courtship in the first place.

The story hits some compelling emotional notes, but the main character's plight feels selfish, leaving the reader to lap up Russo's sterling prose in search of a bigger truth or two.

"The Whore's Child"

Russo steps slightly out of his comfort zone with the tale of an older nun who reveals her dark past within the security of a short story class. Sister Ursula's willingness to open up, at last, entrances both her fellow students and her professor. But how should the professor help shape her very personal story, and can the standard critiques offered in the classroom setting truly benefit a woman crying out for help?

Russo is telling two tales in one here, and both are snug fits for this abbreviated format. The nun's private hell unfolds like a mystery novel, while the class itself serves as a metaphor for the way we reach out to others to improve our own lives.

"Interventions"

This 67-page novella finds Russo falling back on some rather stale tropes. Some of the characters here fall back on easy caricatures, from those loud-mouth Texans to the facile differences between the Left and the Right.

Ray and Paula are a content, middle-aged couple living under the tension of Ray's health status. Ray's condition isn't detailed at first, but he shrugs off the suggestion by long-time pal Vinnie to consult with his physician before making any decisions.

Ray seems nonplussed by his fate, but when he reaches out to the brother who never strayed far from their home turf he starts to realize something unexpected about himself.

Vinnie feels like cheap comic relief, a notion beneath a talent like Russo. And the stories told about Ray's father and uncle sound like outtakes from a "Honeymooners" script. Russo's use of symbolism and family dynamics is similarly ham-fisted, as if he needed a novel's worth of pages to flesh out his ideas but settled for a more restrictive novella template. But the rhythms of Ray and Paula's relationship feel as sturdily observed as Russo's previous efforts, and the final pages bring the sense of realistic hope that marks the very best of his stories.


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