the 1st Edition of Richard Russo's The Risk Pool (1988)

The Risk Pool

  • Author:  Richard Russo
  • Rank:  #80
  • Published:  1988
  • Publisher:  Random House
  • Pages:  479  (Vintage paperback)
  • First Lines:  “My father, unlike so many of the men he served with, knew just what he wanted to do when the war was over.  He wanted to drink and whore and play the horses.”
  • Last Lines:  “She had the baby on her breast, and she turned it over so I could see my son’s little stem.  It was a touching moment.”
  • ML Edition:  none
  • Film:  long rumored, never made
  • Read:  Fall, 2001

The Novel:  This is the story of Ned Hall.  Looking back, I always want to say it’s the story of his childhood, but in fact the book brings him all the way into his thirties.  I just always so vividly remember the first two parts of the book – in which he is a child, then a young teen, that I forget about the rest.  But the novel is carefully divided into four parts, the four parts of the year in Mohawk, New York, the fiction town created in Russo’s first novel and perfected in this one.

The first season is Fourth of July, in which we first meet Ned, first meet his father and begin to understand the insane relationship between him and his mother (which ends up with a hilarious scene of her shooting up his car).  “He’d been shot at before and guessed that my mother wasn’t really trying to hit him, but those were precisely the situations that got you shot.  He knew from his experience overseas that if you only got shot by people aiming at you specifically, war wouldn’t have been nearly such a hazardous affair.”  What’s amazing is how well Russo takes truly appalling situations (a father who kidnaps his son, who holds his wife’s life hostage, who brutally beats her lawyer) and continually finds way to make you laugh.  Less overtly comic than John Irving, yet more grounded in the reality of the small dying town, Russo is one of the best of contemporary writers (I would love to teach a class using Russo, Irving and Chabon and talking about the humor in these books combined with the lack of proper fathers).

The second part is Mohawk Fair, the prime event of late summer in a town like this, and one that covers Ned’s early teen years.  Ned has gone to live with his father during the time that his mother attempts to cope with life (her own life and life in general).  Here he falls in love with Tria Ward, the beautiful daughter of the richest man in town, never realizing how their paths will continue to cross, with the combination of pathos and humor as he lusts after her desperately at her own father’s funeral, an event in which he oddly belongs much more than most of the town who show up to look at the rich man’s house.  When it ends, with Ned still a teen and his father having headed out on to the road, having hi-jacked Ned’s savings account (when told by Ned that he didn’t want it, his father replies “You must, or you wouldn’t have made me look all over for it.”), I tend to forget that there is still half the book to look forward to.

By the third part, Eat the Bird, Ned has grown up and left, yet is drawn back in, both to Mohawk and to his father’s life:

It had always been the rhythms of my father’s life that most mystified me.  There had been no predicting whether he’d turn left or right.  You didn’t know where he was headed because he hadn’t told you, and he hadn’t told you because he thought you knew, or should have known, or could have figured it out if you’d been paying attention.

When we get to the final part, Winter, with a capital W, we have learned that though Ned is the narrator, though the story follows the course of his life, it is not a story of him, nor even of the town of Mohawk and its inevitable decline.  It is the story of that mythical, mysterious father and when we finally get to the Epilogue, we can see only one place where it could have possibly lead us.  But somehow we are as surprised as Ned is when he sees a photograph from his childhood, one that appeared in the newspaper that seems to show him lifting up a car parked on a snowbank: “My father had instructed me to mug for the camera, which I did, but not Sam Hall.  He had one hand on my shoulder and was looking down at me proudly, as if he believed me to be truly capable of wondrous things.”

It is lines like those that make the book so wonderfully true to life.  Michiko Kakutani hit it right on the nail with her initial review of the novel for The New York Times, back on November 2, 1988:  “What’s more, with Ned and Sam, Mr. Russo has suceeded in creating characters with the emotional weight of people we’ve known in real life. They embed themselves in our imaginations, and their personal losses -of love, of hope and of ambition – become an elegy for the town of Mohawk itself, for a time and place on the verge of vanishing from the American scene.”

Two last little notes.  The first is that the film has been rumored for a good decade now but has never gotten anywhere.  I asked Russo himself about it a year ago at a reading.  I also mentioned that I always imagined Forest Whitaker as Wussy.  He seemed to think it was a good suggestion.

The second is that we come upon books in very different ways.  For the most part, I find the classics and read them.  I take lists of great books, award winners, great writers, and I attack them whole-heartedly.  But back in 2001, just before Empire Falls was published, the only thing I had ever read by Richard Russo was Straight Man.  I had a brand new boss by the name of Joe Lopata who absolutely loved The Risk Pool and insisted I read it.  I did.  I loved it.  I still love it.  I remember well where that suggestion came from and I thank him.  You don’t get much chance in life to thank people for things like this.  But he earned this mention.