The Risk Pool

Richard Russo, Author
Richard Russo, Author Random House (NY) $19.95 (479p) ISBN 978-0-394-56527-9
Reviewed on: 09/01/1988
Release date: 09/01/1988
Brilliantly fulfilling the promise of his first novel, Mohawk , Russo sets this richly satisfying narrative in the same blue-collar milieu of that fictional upstate New York town. The narrator, Ned Hall, or ``Sam Hall's boy,'' as he is always identified by his father's pals, recalls his growing-up years in a community whose seasons are identified as ``Fourth of July, Mohawk Fair, Eat the Bird and Winter.'' The unconventional upbringing that contributes to his pessimistic view of life is the result of the ongoing war between his parents. Sam Hall, as feckless, inept and irresponsible a charmer as has ever been conjured to fictional life, abandons his wife and son for the best part of 12 years while he becomes a barfly, petty thief and gambler, a generally disreputable citizen whose status in the lowest depths of the insurance risk pool typifies his harum-scarum existence. He claims adolescent Ned after his mother's nervous breakdown, however, and the two years father and son spend together are the essence of this chronicle of complex parental and filial relationships. Under his father's tutelege Ned learns to lie and cheat, steal and play poolindeed, to remake himself in his father's imageand it is not until two decades later that he realizes he has also learned about the redemptive power of love. Russo writes in a prose style as seductive as spring: the novel has a vigorous pace, sharply witty dialogue and a liberal helping of hilarious scenes. The book's depiction of a community fallen on hard times, its vividly delineated characters, and its sensitive portrayal of a boy bewildered by the conditions of his life and learning to adapt to hardship, neglect and a curious kind of off-hand love all pack an emotional wallop. This is a novel whose intelligence will appeal to discriminating readers, whose chronicling of picaresque misadventures will vastly entertain, and whose compassionate evocation of lower middle-class people struggling to find dignity and happiness will strike home with universal truths. In short, it's as good a novel as we are likely to get this year. BOMC and QPBC alternates. (Nov . )
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