Reading the four stories in “Trajectory” is like receiving a master class in Richard Russo. Each of the worlds that he has explored over the years is in full flower.
There’s the blue-collar world of “Empire Falls” and “Nobody’s Fool,” his beloved Venice of “Bridge of Sighs,” and the world of academia that he satirizes so brilliantly in the winning “Straight Man.”
The stories in “Trajectory” are long and filled to the brim with the comedy and humanity that are the cornerstones of Russo’s work. Each story reminds us that “people cling to folly as if it were their most prized possession, defending it, sometimes with violence, against the possibility of wisdom.”
In “Horseman,” a young academic finds that her life in the classroom and her life at home need looking after. As she looks to her academic life for solace about her personal life, she discovers — as she contemplates two senior professors — that she must embrace a simple, basic humanity in her work and in her family: “It’s the greatest of mysteries, I think . . . what it’s like to be another person. . . . What it feels like, I mean. Literature. Life. They give us little glimpses, leaving us hungry for more.”
“Voice,” the longest of the stories, follows two middle-aged brothers as they join each other for a four-day group tour of the Venice Biennale. One brother is trying to put behind him a past incident with a student of his. As Nate bumbles his way through the present while focusing on his past, he comes to understand the simple, basic truth that “a man doesn’t have to be a monster, or even a bad man, to harm others, or to be a profound disappointment to himself.”
In “Intervention,” a Maine realtor works assiduously to sell a friend’s home. Along the way, he confronts who his father was and who he himself has become. As he places the house he hopes to sell in order, Ray learns another of Russo’s simple, basic truths: “Life was full of mysteries, large and small. They tended to pile up. Boxes and boxes and boxes of the inexplicable, until you could barely move amid the clutter.”
“Milton and Marcus” must surely be a version of Russo’s experiences in Hollywood. An on-screen partnership — evoking that of Paul Newman and Robert Redford — results in an unexpected meeting about a long-dormant, unfinished movie script by a novelist-cum-screenwriter. That screenwriter ultimately discovers yet another simple and basic truth. It’s the answer to “Why shouldn’t we have whatever we want?” “Put simply,” he reminds himself, “I’d wanted more happiness than I had coming.”
Richard Russo acknowledges that there is a fundamental darkness about life, true. He even understands that we will stumble over our own feet as we attempt to make our way, attempt to come of age.
Whether that way be through the “tough grittiness” of central Maine or the diverse art worlds of modern Venice or the disingenuousness of contemporary Hollywood, Richard Russo never judges. He just urges us forward, ever reminding us that “life is, seemingly by design, a botched job,” and that all we can do is “go slow.”
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.