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Arts & Entertainment
08/04/02, G-01

By JOHN ROWEN, Staff Writer
Russo reveals mastery of short story in `Whore's Child' review

"The Whore's Child" by Richard Russo (Knopf, 272 pages, $24, ISBN 0-375-41168-2)

SCHENECTADY -- Richard Russo's new book will raise a big question for fans of the novelist and screenwriter, a Gloversville native and Pulitzer Prize winner.

They will wonder if Russo, who is well known for five novels that reviewers have described as "giant" or "Dickensian," can deliver in the rigorous space limits of the short story form.

After finishing "The Whore's Child," I am happy to report that Russo has added the short story to his list of writing accomplishments.

The book's only shortcoming is that it can quickly become a fast read. Despite reading carefully, I became swept up in Russo's snappy pace and found that the stream of vivid writing, beautiful descriptions of place, wit and insights ended far too soon.

Three of Russo's novels were set in upstate New York. The seven short stories in this collection,actually five short stories and two that approach novella length, include no local settings; they take place in New England and Pennsylvania.

In a recent conversation from his home in Maine, Russo explained that the stories in "The Whore'sChild" do not have a common theme. "They are a group of short stories that I was the most pleased with." Russo selected his favorite and the most durable stories from among those he wrote over the last dozen years.

While the stories have no common theme, they all have what Russo calls a "sense of surprise, what Joyce called " `epiphany.' " By surprise, he does not mean "an O. Henry type of surprise, that springs from the plot, but a surprise in our understanding.

"You think," he continues, "you know something about the short story characters but by the story's end, you realize you don't."

Surprise ending

The title story, "The Whore's Child" has one of the most surprising endings in the book. The story is narrated by a writing professor, in whose creative writing class the elderly Sister Ursula appears. There are chapters of Sister Ursula's memoir, the class' reaction to it and the narrator's comments on his conversations with Sister Ursula.

The class, the reader, even Sister Ursula herself, proceed with certain assumptions about the nun's life. But just before the story ends, a student's chance remark causes Sister Ursula to realize she has misunderstood the central event of her life in the several generations since.

In "Joy Ride," a young mother from Maine becomes frustrated with her life married to the owner of a hardware store. She raids the bank account and heads west in the car with her 12-year-old son. After a string of events like those in "Thelma and Louise," the story concludes. The surprise in "Joy Ride" is the mother's and son's different understandings of the trip - as it happens and years later.

Believable backgrounds

Along with the surprises and epiphanies, Russo offers vivid and believable backgrounds. In "The Mysteries of Linwood Hart," he describes a sixth-grade baseball game with a deftness that makes it as compelling as a World Series game. The author has a good sense of the light and vistas at the seashore, from this time of year into autumn.

The stories are loaded with sharply, concisely drawn characters with lots of witty and insightful dialogue. Because this is a book of short stories, it contains more characters than are found in one of Russo's novels. Russo does well with characters of both genders, all ages andbackgroundss.

He is especially good capturing the lives of pre-teen and teen-age children and middle-aged men and women. He understands how aging makes people wiser yet hobbles them with infirmities from mental breakdowns to prostate problems.

Throughout the book people make mistakes and miss opportunities. In one story, a woman has the choice between returning to her husband, who is an unpleasant person and starting off with a much more sensitive guy. She returns to the husband. Regarding this choice and others, Russo says, wistfully, "We don't want what's good for us."

Short or long

The reader may wonder how the author decides whether to write a short story or novel. Russo does not always know whether his characters will support a novel or a story. However, "most of the time I'll intuit something about size. It's like constructing a building. You may not know exactly how big it'll be, but you'll know whether it's more like a hut or the Empire State Building."

"The Whore's Child" combines strong writing, realistic characters, wit and a lively pace. Run, don't walk, to the bookstore or library for a copy of this book.

He will appear for the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany on Wednesday, Sept. 25. He will lead a writing seminar at 4:15 p.m. at Assembly Hall on the uptown campus. At 8 p.m., he will read from his writings at Page Hall, on the downtown campus. Call 518-442-5620 for further information.

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