‘The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers and Life’

‘The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers and Life’ by Richard Russo, Knopf, 2018, 207 pages, $25.95

Richard Russo is one of our American treasures. His books come as close to the truths of modern living as any contemporary writer gets. His writing is vivid, graceful and wise. He quickly invites us in, making us as comfortable as he can, while he shows us the worst and the best of modern life.

Russo’s works are rare finds. “Nobody’s Fool” and its sequel, “Everybody’s Fool,” are both touching character studies of the nobility of blue-collar life. “Straight Man” will be remembered as one of the best novels about American university life ever written. “Empire Falls” is a brilliant novel about the social strata of a small New England town on the brink of financial ruin; it is his Pulitzer Prize winner.

“The Destiny Thief,” his new book, is a collection of nine essays about, as its subtitle reveals, “writing, writers and life.” It includes wry essays on Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, and an equally wry commencement address he gave at the graduation of one of his daughters: “Be bold. Be true. Be kind. Rotate your tires. Don’t drink so much. There aren’t going to be enough liver transplants to go around.”

“The Gravestone and the Commode” deals directly with the power of laughter, one of the qualities that distinguish us from animals. According to Russo, “It absolutely refuses to respect circumstance. It simply will not be confined or relegated, like dessert, to the end of the meal. It turns up, uninvited at its own whim, seeming to enjoy our discomfort, even our humiliation.”

The stirring title essay is about how Russo’s journey through his life “taught” him who he was destined to be and that, despite his ever-present fears, he had no other option: “Like Odysseus, we have little choice but to lash ourselves to the mast and listen to their Siren song, knowing all too well that they want us on the rocks.”

Other essays deal directly with writing. “What Frogs Think: A Defense of Omniscience” considers what Russo feels to be “the most natural way to tell a story, the virtual default mode of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novel.”

“The Boss in Bulgaria” examines the emerging literary scene of a formerly Communist country that now embraces the likes of Bruce Springsteen, but at the same time champions the importance of both remembering the past and of chasing a dream.

“Imagining Jenny” is Russo’s very personal and powerful essay about a fellow writer who announces that he is transitioning into a woman. The essay itself transitions beautifully into Russo’s knotty revelation of “an emotional conservatism in my character I’d have surely denied had anyone accused me of it.”

The longest essay — it’s about one-third of the collection’s length — is its best. “Getting Good” is about just that, about how we are not born good or even born good enough. It’s about how we learn to “be,” progressing from apprentice to journeyman to master. It is about how, for writers especially, but for all of us, “explaining ourselves to ourselves by means of stories is as fundamental as eating and breathing.”

“The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers and Life” is also about Richard Russo as teacher and student, son and father, husband and friend. The collection is, in part, a primer for writers — any aspiring writer needs to immediately read it from cover to cover — and part worldview — everyone needs to read it from cover to cover for a touch of Russo’s boundless generosity and great good humor.

Steven Whitton is a retired professor of English.