Skip to main content

Trajectory: Stories


Trajectory: Stories

Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo has been productive of late. Since 2012, he's delivered a frank, affecting memoir of life with his mother (ELSEWHERE) and the novel EVERYBODY'S FOOL, a delightful return to the antics of the residents of North Bath, New York, and a worthy sequel to NOBODY'S FOOL. Now he's returned to short fiction for the first time since his 2002 collection, THE WHORE'S CHILD. It would be a pleasure to report that he's scored what amounts to a literary trifecta with TRAJECTORY, but the weakness of the collection's longest entry renders it, at best, only a partial success.

Readers who come to this book expecting fictional updates from the dying factory towns of upstate New York and New England --- the settings for most of Russo's novels --- may be surprised. Instead, in two of the four stories, he returns to the academic milieu of his novel STRAIGHT MAN. "Milton and Marcus," the portrait of a writer's struggle to bring a cherished story to the screen, draws on Russo's extensive experience in film and television. The tale that's situated in closest proximity to classic Russo Country is "Intervention," in which a middle-aged realtor in rural Maine is forced to navigate simultaneously the depressed market that followed the Great Recession and a cancer diagnosis.

"Readers who come to this book expecting fictional updates from the dying factory towns of upstate New York and New England --- the settings for most of Russo's novels --- may be surprised. Instead, in two of the four stories, he returns to the academic milieu of his novel STRAIGHT MAN."

TRAJECTORY begins on a strong note with "Horseman," the story of English professor Janet Moore, who faces a crisis on the eve of Thanksgiving when she encounters what she's concluded is an incident of plagiarism. It's a lovely character sketch that ends on a note of grace, as Janet gradually connects lessons in empathy she's learned from a long-ago mentor and an aging, alcoholic colleague, two men "with nothing in common but an innate generosity."

In "Intervention," Ray struggles to sell houses to out-of-staters he must acquaint with the fact that in his territory "winter views" is a euphemism for a property with an "intermittent sparkle of blue water among the stark black trees." Following his father, who died after foregoing treatment in the face of his own cancer diagnosis, he's resisting the efforts of his new friend Vinnie, a glib, improbable transplant from Palm Beach, who wants to use his connections with a prominent surgeon in Boston to accelerate Ray's treatment. "He'd simply concluded, as his father must've done, that he wasn't special, that there was no reason such a thing shouldn't happen to him." But for all his inherited passivity, Ray doesn't hesitate to step in when one of his clients refuses to take action to make her house salable.

The book's final story --- the only one with a first person narrator --- unfolds in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where Ryan, a novelist and part-time academic, has been summoned from Vermont by an aging actor/producer to discuss developing a screenplay fragment Ryan had written for a now-deceased actor and friend. Not quite old enough for Medicare and lacking health insurance to pay for his wife's cancer treatment, Ryan is highly motivated to ensure the project's success, but his encounter with the cynical reality of the film business --- portrayed here with an economical realism --- leaves him understanding that "I'd wanted more happiness than I had coming." The spirit of Paul Newman, star of the film version of NOBODY'S FOOL and an HBO miniseries version of EMPIRE FALLS, gently hovers over the story, as Ryan recalls his dead friend, his films "invariably about his characters' attempts to locate the shed skin of a better self, about somehow slipping back into it, feeling at home in it once more."

Each of these three stories provides a fully satisfying experience. Where the collection founders is with "Voice," the novella-length story of two brothers on a group tour to Italy during the Biennale. The younger, Nate, is a college professor with a passion for Jane Austen, while Julian is a "career salesman" who's sold everything from cars to stocks, but in Nate's mind has only ever sold one thing: himself. Over the course of a few days in Venice, Nate must deal with Julian's mysterious comings and goings, all the while dwelling on a bizarre encounter with a troubled female student that brought an end to his academic career. At first, the story appears to turn on a jet-lagged Nate's effort to maintain a fragile sanity, but that plot thread is abandoned. In the end, "Voice" struggles to find its own. Despite the sympathy it engenders for Nate, it's too long to succeed as a short story and lacking in the development necessary for a novel.

Like his screenwriter protagonist, Richard Russo possesses "an insight into what makes people tick, that and a certain cynical understanding that what makes them tick generally isn't what makes them good or even interesting." For that reason and because of the consistent pleasure his prose produces, even Russo's weaker work can never be dismissed outright. In the case of TRAJECTORY, just be prepared to discover that the story that strives to be its most nourishing simply isn't all that filling.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on May 5, 2017

Trajectory: Stories
by Richard Russo

  • Publication Date: April 3, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 1101971983
  • ISBN-13: 9781101971987