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Nobody's Fool--Book and Movie

Photo: Movie poster from its (abbreviated) Wikipedia page.


It is impossible to read the book without putting Paul Newman's face on the character on the page, since I've seen the movie already, and it's one of my subdued favorites.  As I mentioned someplace else, it's one of my two favorite Paul Newman performances, along with The Verdict.  I had much less difficulty getting Bruce Willis's and Jessica Tandy's faces off of their characters' names on the page (although both gave great performances as well, especially Tandy), and I had no problem at all getting the faces of the more minor characters completely out of my mind as I read, as those characters share a lot less in common with their film's namesakes.  But Newman so nailed his character that his face was everywhere as I read.


It was a bitter shock to read a few scenes where his character (Donald Sullivan) and Willis's (Carl Roebuck) have a conversation in which both drop the racial N-bomb quite a few times, and this happens in a much more abbreviated way towards the end as well.  I simply don't see either character, especially Sully, using the word in conversation; both characters are much too carefree, and both are quite easygoing around everyone in town.  Sully only has bitterness towards his long-dead father, and perhaps himself; he's not even angry at his ex-wife, or his ex-lover, or anyone--not even Officer Raymer, really, who he has an oddly friendly scene with towards the end, or Roebuck, who he sees more as a son/friend figure, and who he covers with a blanket when he crashes at Sully's place.  So I feel Russo made an error with a decision about his characters here.


Besides that, there were no errors to be had in the whole book, which says a lot since it couldn't, in my mind, hold up to the movie.  But it comes close, and it reads as a sort of pleasantly washed-up male version of an Anne Tyler novel--perhaps close to The Accidental Tourist, in many ways, though Richard Russo's characters are all much more idiosyncratic and eccentric.  (Much more so, even, than Tyler's Accidental Tourist and Muriel, who is very kooky indeed.)


The screenplay by Robert Benton is a masterpiece, and keeps shockingly close to the book, to the point where the movie's best dialogue is taken verbatim from the novel.  (Except for the judge's line I love from the film, which turns out to be Benton's.  When told that Officer Raymer is under suspension, he says, "Anesthesia is what he should be under ...")  Gone are the scenes with the N-bomb, thank God.  A bartender (Birdie) and the bar's owner (Tiny) are morphed into just Birdie.  Gone are Sully's accidental arsonist past, and the pharmacist's request that he burn down his store.  Sully doesn't have a lover in the film, which was possibly another mistake in the book (I don't see Sully sleeping with another man's wife for twenty years, but that's what he does in the book), and his son doesn't end up, temporarily, with Toby at the end, nor is Toby bisexual like she is in the book.  All of these are great decisions on Benton's part; he didn't make one single wrong move.  When I finished the book, I wanted to watch the movie again, even though I've seen it on cable very recently.


The book itself is very well-written, and Russo deserves the kudos he gets for his characterization and dialogue, and breezy writing style.  Though there were way too many instances of repetitive tags, like "he admitted," and though Sully (and the other characters) are said to smile way too often as they say things, he and his landlady are exceptionally drawn characters, and Russo's storytelling ability inspired me to re-start my first-person detective novel and write it in third-person omniscient, creating a much more specific world and personality set for each of my characters.  Writing is great when it inspires you to make such a drastic shift in your own writing.


I look forward to reading the other books by Russo I bought recently at a used book store, especially his Empire Falls.  Stay tuned for those.

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My Favorite Newman Film

Nobody's Fool beats every other Newman film for my taste, and I heard it was his favorite as well. The supporting cast was stellar as well, especially Philip S. Hoffman, Jessica Tandy, Melanie Griffith, and the guy who played Rub (I think he got an Oscar nomination.)

I watch this film at least twice a year around Christmas as I identify heavily with Sully.

Looking forward to reading the book. I'm a Russo fan after reading and viewing Empire Falls.

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New to Russo

I didn't know Nobody's Fool was Newman's favorite.  That's cool to know.  Taylor Pruitt Vince is the guy who played Rub; he specializes in the type of role he played there.  He was in The Walking Dead for a little while; I remember him all the way back to Mississippi Burning.  Good actor for that kind of role.

I'm late to Russo.  I have most of his books now, from the used bookstore down the street.  Empire Falls has given him the most critical acclaim, so I'll read that one next.  If I like it, I'll see it, too.  I didn't know it was made into something.

And I've gotta ask: Why do you identify so much with Sully?

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Sully 'n Me

Sully cared about everyday people, the powerless. He carried a load of pain (metaphorically expressed in his injured knee) through life, but instead of letting it defeat him, he let it sensitize him to the pain and struggles of others. He spoke truth to power and took the consequences. Every day, he was a loving friend and his love was returned by the townspeople. He was old and weary in body but world wise and willing, intent even, to share what he thought was important. 

There are two basic kinds of people in the world--those who like things shiny new and perfect and those who see hidden value concealed in the flaws that inevitably appear. Sully appreciates the latter and is no slave to the former. Mrs. Beryl's broken railing wasn't just a chore; it was a link between her and Sully that allowed him to show is love for her and for her to show hers in choosing him to fix it, with no reciprocity involved. 

There were dozens of these "loving" exchanges between Sully and the townspeople throughout the story, like when Sully helped the demented grandmother get back to the diner, walking sockfooted in the snow and ice; then substituting for her daughter at the diner where she was waitressing. 

Like Sully, I had a rotten childhood and it sensitized instead of hardening me. I see honor in the overlooked heroisms of everyday working class struggle. I see love where others are repelled by poverty. I had a lousy marriage but raised successful chilren. I don't allow money to control my life but am optimistic about the outlook for financial comfort.

(This is all based on the film. The book is on my reading list. I hope it holds up.)


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Well Said



This was a really well-written response, and I'm sorry to hear about your childhood and marriage.  Now that I read your last comment, I'm sort of annoyed with myself for not writing my blog entry as well as this.  But I also connected to Sully for many of the same reasons you mentioned.  I've never been married, but my childhood was rather painful, and uniquely lousy, I think; I have to add this was of no fault of my parents, who did the best they could with the hands dealt to both of them--and to me, for that matter.  But due to a childhood that made me a psychological adult by 14 or so, I also have a glimpse into the faults of others, which are often more interesting and/or amusing to me than are the supposed (materialistic) successes of others.  I agree with your great insight that Sully was somehow also able to do this.  I doubt whether he could have explained it as well as you did, but he certainly felt it and learned it nonetheless.  (And the book goes into greater detail about the childhood terrors his father inflicted upon him, and his mother; the mother only shows Sully's hatred towards him without actually being specific about it--though of course abuse is assumed.)

I cannot say that I don't have a decently-paying job that allows me some sort of comfort, but I'm aware of how fleeting, and of how, ultimately, unimportant this surface success is.  How I've been able to achieve it is more important than the things I've actually gotten, if you know what I mean.  I'm seen as a bit eccentric around these suburban-hell parts because of this, but I don't care.  These people are often manifested in my writings as well, both published and unpublished.

Thanks for this dialogue!  It's a pleasure to have met you. 

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I'm Delighted...

...to find someone so interested in Nobody's Fool.  I think it has a lot to teach us about what it means to be human, and this is the essence of great literature. 

I think NF ranks up there with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but time so far hasn't been as kind to Russo as it has to Kesey. I suspect it's because most people are too well defended to allow themselves to dig very deeply into sensitive places. America is still a very uptight culture. Writers still have to use the 2 x 4 to the head approach, as Kesey did.

(Another example of a grossly underrated film is Bed of Roses, a story about a foundling who became an investment banker. I guess it was too sweet and gushy for most people.)

Writers are still groping to communicate past the readers' defenses, to penetrate the medulla oblongata. Readers don't want us in there because it hurts too much or they're afraid of what they'll find in such a dark and unexplored realm.

And so they watch/read about vampires and ghosts and boys that fly around on brooms waving wands. But I'm on my soapbox.

Enjoyed the dialogue.

Keep at it. The world needs us writers to make sense of it.



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Writers definitely perform a public service of sorts.  Sometimes we have to tell people what they're feeling, what they're thinking.  In fact, critic Harold Bloom says that Shakespeare did that so well that he invented what we think of as being human--in his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.

Kesey receives praise not only for (mostly) that one book (and the movie made from it), but also because he was a chronicler of his time, and quite the activist.  (Supposedly he's even taken a stance against the film; he's said he's never seen it.)  Russo is a quieter writer during a quieter social time.  Other writers respect him tremendously.  The readers haven't yet, not in mass numbers.  He still needs that big splash of a book.  It may still happen yet.