- ISBN-13: 9781524733513
- ISBN-10: 1524733512
- Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
- Publish Date: May 2018
- Page Count: 224
- Dimensions: 8.4 x 5.9 x 1.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 0.8 pounds
Well Read: While the getting's good
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Russo might well concede that he was a late bloomer—at least by the hurry-up-and-make-your-mark standards that pervade contemporary culture. His first novel, Mohawk, wasn’t published until he was in his late 30s, and before becoming a full-time writer, Russo spent many years supporting himself and his family by teaching. The pedagogical impulse remains deeply ingrained, as evidenced by the generous-hearted and insightful essays on writing and life that are collected in his captivating new book, The Destiny Thief.
Most of this writing has appeared elsewhere but has probably eluded all but the most diligent Russo fan. The nine pieces fully display Russo’s trademark warmth and wit, and are marked by a fair dose of unpretentious wisdom and a genuineness that sometimes borders on self-effacement. In the title essay, for instance, he ponders his own path, assessing what it took to become a professional writer against all odds, and contemplates the fates of others he has known who failed to make it despite equal or sometimes greater gifts (at least in his modest appraisal). The longest piece, “Getting Good,” is a capacious consideration of aspirations versus talent, and of the intersection of craft and art. Russo advises would-be writers to embrace their apprenticeship and cherish the often long and challenging journey needed to improve and become a writer worth reading.
Russo is an accomplished comic writer, so it is not surprising that he counts Charles Dickens and Mark Twain among his influences. Essays written as introductions to these masters’ work are rich with insight into the process of storytelling. Russo helps us understand how Dickens grew as a writer through the very process of writing and how Twain blurred the line between truth and fiction with singular insouciance. Ever mindful that humor is subjective (and often by nature offensive), the essay “The Gravestone and the Commode” reminds us that comedy and tragedy live cheek by jowl in our lives and should do so in our fiction as well.
While many of the pieces in The Destiny Thief are sprinkled with details drawn from Russo’s personal life, a few offer more than fleeting moments of autobiography. The aforementioned “Getting Good” is filled with Russo’s memories of working as a union laborer during college summers and the lessons learned, sometimes unwittingly, from his working-class grandfather and father. “Imagining Jenny,” the foreword for a friend’s memoir about undergoing sex reassignment surgery, wrestles with questions of friendship and the things to which we bear witness. Memories of a writer’s conference in Bulgaria underscore thoughts on identity and voice—and a lifelong passion for Bruce Springsteen.
“I’ve written a lot about destiny in my fiction, not because I understand it, but because I’d like to,” Russo admits. Taken as a whole, the essays in The Destiny Thief puzzle with the mysteries of what good writing is and what good living is. In the end, Russo’s ethos for both is best summed up by the four “deeply flawed rules to live by,” which he shares in a commencement address to a group of graduating college students: “Go to it. Be bold. Be true. Be kind.”