Trajectory

by Richard Russo
reviewed by Ethan Loewi
August 18, 2017

Halfway through “Intervention,” the third piece of four in Richard Russo’s superb—if uneven—new collection of stories, I found myself closing the book every few lines. I needed moments to savor, digest, and stare into space with contemplative awe. A good Russo passage, all but glowing from the page with wit, warmth, and emotional insight, somehow becomes more than the sum of its excellent parts. His voice is breathtaking and pause-making.

“Intervention” revolves around Ray, a cancer-stricken realtor living in Maine. A typically beleaguered, introspective Russo protagonist, Ray very much takes after his father—a self-effacing, rule-following man, who “wouldn’t say shit if he had a mouthful.” His father, too, had cancer—and, in Ray’s view, “meekly accepted” his death, choosing not to seek special treatment or a second opinion. As Ray’s own illness threatens to drag him to the same grim conclusion, he’s forced to confront the totality of his father’s influence and the seemingly preordained fate of repeating his failures.

Russo is at the peak of his powers when writing about fathers, sons, and brothers. Take this sad, graceful passage from the final pages of "Intervention":

Those last few years his father had seemed more abstracted than anything, both weary of life’s drama and puzzled by his own insignificant part in it, like a man who’d always believed the choice to speak had been his, only to discover when he changed his mind that he was mute.

Throughout the collection, Russo crescendos his way to these types of moments: revelatory and unsparing, yet shot through with tenderness for the thwarted yearning of his characters. The line above reads like Bernard Malamud—another deeply empathetic humanist—with a keen eye for unmet hopes and human flaws. In "Intervention," Russo observes that "people cling to folly as if it were their most prized possession, defending it, sometimes with violence, against the possibility of wisdom." But like Malamud, Russo never settles on despair. By the end of every piece in Trajectory, his characters unearth resilience: challenging their sadness and stagnation, and finding ways to alter their trajectories through life.

Russo’s protagonists in Trajectory are accomplished, educated New Englanders. His leads include two professors, a real estate agent, and a writer. “Horseman” centers on Janet, a frustrated professor at a small liberal arts college, as she struggles with a plagiarizing student, sexist colleagues, and her inability to connect with her husband and son. “Voice” tells the story of Nate, a shy and self-castigating professor, recently retired in the wake of a traumatic incident with a student. He’s visiting the Venice Biennale with a tour group and his estranged, combative brother Julian, who is nursing inflammatory secrets of his own. This brother-brother relationship is particularly well-rendered, crackling with a lifetime of nuanced animosity. The relationship between the two is a wild contrast to the more affectionate bond between Miles and David Roby, brothers in Empire Falls, Russo’s 2001 Pulitzer-winning novel.

The collection’s final piece, “Milton and Marcus,” is sheer pleasure. The funniest of the four, it follows Ryan, a novelist-turned-screenwriter, as he travels to the home of a legendary actor. As a chain of shameless betrayals comes into view, Russo gently eviscerates the greed, vanity, and solipsism of the movie business, with sharp commentary for all involved: “If actors are famously narcissistic, writers run a close second, and they generally have far less justification.”

While Trajectory has numerous successes, the collection gets off to an underwhelming start. “Horseman” disappoints, especially when held up to the three pieces that follow it. Its awkward placement in the collection does little to help it; the first two pages of “Voice” introduce a more compelling voice in a more interesting setting, and the fact that both protagonists are English professors dealing with student-related problems only exacerbates the negative comparison. Populated with a cast of uninspired campus regulars, “Horseman” is a faint and poorly timed preview.

The other pieces, while excellent, are not without notable flaws. At his worst, Russo is a ruthless over-explainer, preferring to paint his moral and philosophical statements in ten-foot neon letters rather than risk a confused reader. “Intervention,” for example, offers a powerful, elegant critique of American selfishness, but Russo still feels the need to address our culture of gluttony through the blunt analogy of a fat man at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

At one point, Ray’s brother Bill offers up the following chin-stroker: “I don’t remember people being so hungry back in the day, do you? What does it mean that we can’t get filled up anymore?” It’s not the didacticism I find fault with, but its clumsiness. That tremendously unsubtle line also happens to rehash a similar observation from Empire Falls (“The sad, fucking truth was that no matter who you are, you never, ever, will get your fill.”). Furthermore, at what point in American history have we ever been an easily satisfied people?

Despite its moments of excess explication, and one story that should be quietly directed to the glue factory, Trajectory is a moving and enjoyable collection. In their crucibles of trauma and regret, Russo’s characters search desperately for hope; the reader, along with them, can find it.