Thursday, January 28, 2010

Our best novelist

Over Christmas, my wife gave me Richard Russo's latest, That Old Cape Magic, along with several other titles. I'm always grateful for any gift, but I must admit that I asked myself "When am I going to have time to read all these?" Turns out I'm almost through the stack now--with Russo's book being the very first one I opened. I can never regret an opportunity to read more of Richard Russo. That Old Cape Magic is as engaging, honestly felt, and soundly crafted a book as Russo's ever written. Thinking about it afterwards, and specifically those qualities, made me come to a couple of convincing realizations: 1) The man never--I mean never--writes a bad book. He's the most consistent craftsman of fiction that I know of. 2) He's a master of plotting, endlessly resourceful at putting his characters in high water and then making matters even worse for them, even as his novels also demonstrate a fierce emotional depth and intellectual honesty. 3) His prose is note perfect, so clean as to be unnoticeable and yet at the same time sparkling, vigorous. By no means he is a maximalist like Rick Moody or Michael Chabon, but neither does he go to the far opposite end of the pole either. There's not a dull sentence in his work; and neither is there a tortured one. Every sentence does the work, and only the work, that it's supposed to.

When I finished Cape Magic I found myself brimming, aglow from the book and with less than fully articulated versions of the above thoughts. And then the truth of it hit me. He's the best novelist in America. I'm never not satisfied, never not completely engaged, never not enthralled, by the worlds of his books. I always put down a Richard Russo novel feeling not only nourished but educated, not only moved but entertained--way down in the center of my bones. I come out of his books feeling a tiny bit wiser. Not just about his characters but everybody. I simply can't think of a better, more consistently rewarding living novelist. At least in this country. Russo, of course, is hardly an unknown quantity. His name is widely familiar, his fans legion, his place in contemporary letters secure. But do we ever declare him to be our flat out Best Novelist? I didn't think so. Well, it's time that we should.


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