The Risk Pool by Richard Russo
“This led to a discussion of whether you-know-what was better in heaven. Somewhere in the proceedings, my father, who had instigated the whole thing, lost interest. As the voices rose in mock anger and comic disagreement over what it had to feel like to get balled in heaven, my father as I noticed him do repeatedly that summer when he thought no one was looking, stared at the crooked stump of his thumb, as if the black, callused digit he’d lost contained some magic he despaired of finding anywhere else beneath the sky.”– pg. 341
A typical coming of age story, The Risk Pool is an entertaining, if somewhat flat, second novel from Pulitzer prize-winning author Richard Russo. Bold, quirky characters and clever dialogue kept me turning the pages but never seemed to produce satisfying rising action (or resolution).
The lurching plot was compelling at first, as it appeared Russo had discarded literary convention in favor of a frustrating but realistic progression of events, but the device grew tiresome and disingenuous well before the final page. Other readers may not find this structure quite so irritating. For me it developed into somewhat of a peeve.
Russo’s knack for portraying authentic denizens of a small town in the Northeastern United States is really the hallmark of this novel. Each character is bold and memorable, developed through anecdotal tales that wind around the vague and often indeterminable plotline. Though the characters are developed as unique individuals, they are far too easily categorized by a cliché dichotomy: Innocent characters are portrayed as weak and flawed, often unwilling to face a truth of significant personal consequence. Unsavory characters openly acknowledge their flaws and are portrayed as resilient, often foolish, but at times wise and unquestionably capable of good.
One might claim that at its core, the book is really about the relationship between the main character, Ned Hall, and his parents. That certainly seems to be the primary source of conflict and driving force throughout the novel. On the other hand, you could aver, as does Jack Sullivan of the New York Times, that the book is really about Ned’s diminishing relationship with the small town of his 1950’s childhood. While this strikes me as a prominent theme of the novel, it is, at best, only choppily developed and severely lacking in poignancy.
If you enjoy character-driven stories with a wicked sense of humor, then you will likely consider The Risk Pool an outstanding read. It is deeply emotional and so funny that I often broke out laughing, however, it lacks depth. Russo provides an interesting narrative but after the final paragraph all I could think was “so what?”
Have you read The Risk Pool? Share your thoughts!