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Nobody's Fool


Nobody's Fool Cover



Reading Group Guide

1. This novel's title, Nobody's Fool, is a punning reference to its protagonist, Donald Sullivan, who at age 60 is "divorced from his own wife, carrying on halfheartedly with another man's, estranged from his son, devoid of self-knowledge, badly crippled and virtually unemployable--all of which he stubbornly confuse[s] with independence." Why is Sully so insistent on remaining nobody's fool? How has this determination affected his relationships with other people?

2. One consequence of Sully's prickly autonomy is his tendency to go off on "stupid streaks." Is Sully a stupid man? How would you evaluate a freedom whose defining characteristic seems to be the freedom to do the wrong thing at the wrong time?

3. From the beginning we know that Sully has a bad knee, and his refusal to treat--or even favor--it generates many of the novel's complications. In what ways does this injury resonate with the novel's themes?

4. Sully's string of misfortunes may also be due to bad luck or malign predestination. Is he destined to be unlucky? To what extent are his actions and character predetermined?

5. Sully's father brutalized him as a child. Sully deserted his son, Peter. Peter abandoned his timid eldest son, Will, to the mercies of his sociopathic little brother. What causes does the author posit for this four-generation history of cruelty and neglect?

6. Perhaps to compensate for Sully's brutal father, Russo supplies Sully with a very good, if somewhat sharp-tongued, surrogate mother, Beryl Peoples. She may, in fact, be the most real and enduring attachment Sully has. How does their relationship compare with Beryl's relationship with her real son, Clive, Jr.? How is the antagonism between Clive and Sully an extension of their childhood rivalry for the affections of Beryl's late husband?

7. How would you characterize Russo's portrayal of relations between the sexes, and why are most of his characters divorced, widowed, or unhappily married?

8. The sudden flashes of good luck (or simple happiness) that illuminate Sully's life and the lives of other characters may be attributable to grace, which The Random House Dictionary of the English Language defines as "the influence or spirit of God operating in humans to regenerate or strengthen them." At what moments does grace seem to operate in this novel?

9. Nobody's Fool is also a novel about a town, North Bath, New York, whose misfortunes, like Sully's, may be due to collective stupidity or fate. Even North Bath's venerable elms now constitute a threat to its communal life and property. In what ways do the novel's principal locales--Hattie's, the OTB, and the White Horse--function as a microcosm of the town as a whole? To what extent are North Bath's decline and grandiose visions of renewal symptomatic of the political and economic climate of America in the 1980s?

10. What role does class play in this novel? To what extent are its characters shaped by economic circumstances?

11. One critic has described Nobody's Fool as "a sad novel camouflaged in comedy." How is this true? What is the nature of the book's sadness? How does Russo balance his comic and tragic impulses?

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lukas, August 11, 2014 (view all comments by lukas)
I'd seen the film version of this, starring Paul Newman and Jessica Tandy (in her final role), years ago, but just read the book. While I liked the movie, it hardly does justice to the book, which is much more involved, detailed, and moving. Russo focuses on a small, sleepy upstate New York town with the intensity of a 19th century novelist, and with the dry, sometimes bleak humor of Raymond Carver. His sorta hero is Sully, an older man who wouldn't have any luck if it weren't for bad luck. He's divorced, doesn't have a steady job, has a bum leg, and is generally regarded as a bum, even by his friends. Yet Russo makes him and the other denizens of this shabby little town come to life, without mocking them or cheapening their experience. It's a rare gift. It has moments of humor, moments of heartbreak, and moments of grace and should be seen as one of the great American novels of the last 25 years.
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jksquires, June 15, 2014 (view all comments by jksquires)
I've read several of Russo's novels, and saw the great Paul Newman made of Nobody's Fool so I decided to plunge into the this one--I'm so glad I did. Russo writes about very ordinary people in a down-at-the-heels town, but that is the charm of this book. The characters are so nuanced and very real. Sully, the lead character is one I will never forget--imperfect, yet trying to redeem himself at the age of 60. His interaction with his 80-year old landlady and former teacher is itself worth the price of the book. Russo is a wonderment.
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Product Details

Russo, Richard
New York :
City and town life
New york (state)
New York
City and town life -- New York (State) -- Fiction.
Black humor
City and town life -- Fiction.
New York (State) Fiction.
General Fiction
Literature-A to Z
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Vintage Contemporaries
Series Volume:
Publication Date:
April 1994
Grade Level:
8 x 5.15 x 1 in 0.95 lb

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Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z

Nobody's Fool Used Trade Paper
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Product details 560 pages Vintage Books USA - English 9780679753339 Reviews:
"Review" by , "Set in the economically desperate ex-resort town of North Bath, N.Y., Russo's novel displays his characteristic verbal panache and biting wit."
"Review" by , "Russo is a master craftsman....The blue-collar heartache at the center of [his] fiction has the sheen of Dickens but the epic levity of John Irving....Nobody's Fool is a big, rambunctious novel with endless riffs and unstoppable human hopefulness."
"Review" by , "Remarkable....Like all the best fiction, [Nobody's Fool] is a revelation of the human heart."
"Review" by , "Simple as family love, yet nearly as complicated, Richard Russo's confident, assured novel sweeps the reader up in the daily life of its characters."
"Review" by , "The fun of this novel is in hearing these guys (and women) talk...they're funny, quick and inventive. The novel's tone has the same...intelligence as its characters."
"Review" by , "Reading this large, comfortable, good-natured novel...feels great....[It] teems with local characters...richly conceived and drawn so lovingly that you can't help but like them."
"Review" by , "[Sully is] reminiscent, in a way, of Bellow's old men....One never tires of watching him, because he has the capacity to make everyone around him feel better, including the reader."
"Review" by , "Few novelists plow this soil with more even-handed ease and naturalness than Russo....He demonstrates a rare ability to find affection for even his most empty [characters] while questioning the choices of those he most values....His success in keeping us involved is especially impressive."
"Review" by , "Nobody's Fool is a giant hard-edged comedy, a Flannery O'Connor story taken north and gone ballistic....Russo's smart prose gives Sully's, and everyone else's, dim prospects a witty, allegorical weight."
"Review" by , "As he demonstrated in Mohawk and The Risk Pool, Russo knows the small towns of upstate New York and the people who inhabit them; he writes with humor and compassion. A delight."
"Synopsis" by , In his slyly funny and moving novel, the author of The Risk Pool follows the unexpected operation of grace in a deadbeat, upstate New York town — and in the lives of the unluckiest of its citizens.
"Synopsis" by , In his slyly funny and moving new novel, the author of The Risk Pool follows the unexpected operation of grace in a deadbeat, upstate New York town--and in the lives of the unluckiest of its citizens. Soon to be a major motion picture starring Paul Newman, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith, and Jessica Tandy. Author reading tour.
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