CBR12Bingo Pandemic – This is the second novel by the American novelist Richard Russo, and the second of his that I’ve read. On the cover we’re told in a blurb that that reader loved the characters in this novel the way he loved the characters in John Irving’s The World According to Garp, and while I can see that comparison in a way, I feel this is more of a case of Saul Bellow than John Irving, if we’re looking for forbears.
The novel takes place in Mohawk County, NY (both kind of a place and not really a place). Our narrator, Ned Hall, begins by telling us about his father coming home from the war, deciding to become a professional partier (in the very blue collar way of things in upstate New York) and things get complicated when he impregnates Ned’s mom, and then Ned is born.
There’s a back and forth kind of stalker/abuse (but told in a folksy way) between Ned’s parents as they are able to finally hash out staying married, but separated, and the rest of the novel unfolds as Ned splits his time between living with his mother, initially, and then after she has a nervous breakdown, his father for years, and later back with his mother later. The final part of the novel involves Ned in his college years, grad school years, and early 30s.
The novel sometimes feels like it can’t figure out its tone. And this was where I was with this novel up until a really important moment where Ned, the narrator, admits that at the time of a certain event when he’s 10, that he’s horrified how little he was thinking about his mother. So while I felt the novel spent a lot of time glossing over the violence and trauma informing so many of the events, what becomes clear after this is that Ned is completely incapable of seeing and understanding the trauma he’s experienced. This becomes beyond clear when Ned is an adult and his trauma is embodied in his orientation to the world. This novel feels a little like a bygone era, but I think like other Russo novels, it holds up as a kind of blue collar American contemporary Dickens.