…’Venice is a labyrinth whose streets are famously full of water.’ – Trajectory, by Richard Russo

July 14, 2017 at 8:52 pm (Book review, books, Short stories)

  Interestingly, there is no story or novella in this collection that’s actually entitled “Trajectory.” Nevertheless, it’s an apt title.

Of the four works here included, I especially liked “Voice.” It takes place in Venice, always a rich venue  for storytellers. The main character is Nate, a retired English professor who has somewhat reluctantly agreed to accompany his brother on a trip to that fabled city on the occasion of the famous (notorious?) Biennale International Art Exhibition.

As is only to be expected, everything looms larger than life in this hothouse atmosphere, including the long running estrangement of Nate from his wheeler-dealer brother Julian. Nate views this trip as a chance for a possible reconciliation, or at least a thaw in relations. Whether this will happen is anybody’s guess, but not unexpectedly, the journey turns out to have larger implications, not just for Nate but for Julian and other members of the tour as well.

As anyone who has traveled with a tour group can attest, your fellow travelers can go from being strangers to intimates in no time flat. They become major players in your life’s drama with lightning speed and then disappear from view just as quickly. Your new bosom buddy from Akron or Reno will inevitably return to his or her home ground, and you, to yours. There’s a certain poignancy in this, a mixture of sadness and relief.

Regarding the few tours I myself have  been on, there are times when these ephemeral but intense relationships overshadow the trip’s stated purpose. I remember a tour I took to Yorkshire in 2005 when the woman seated next to me at dinner was going on at great length about a brand of  health food she was partial to. It’s not a subject that I would ordinarily find riveting, yet I recall being quite captivated by her speech. This, you should know, was taking place while our group was dining in the stately home of a gracious aristocratic couple, a stunning experience  that I had not known we were slated to have and which I will undoubtedly never have again. (And in my memory, it is inextricably linked to Ezekiel Bread.)

That was a bit of a digression, which I hope you’ll excuse. And definitely don’t let it detract from the sheer brilliance of Russo’s story. Nate is a character whose head I got so thoroughly into that when it came time to take my leave, I felt genuine grief at the need to do so. Can you wish a fictional creation well, with all your heart? Well, of course you can. This is one reason why people are so devoted to the novels of Jane Austen.

I love Richard Russo’s writing. His straight ahead, unpretentious style is power (rather artfully) disguised as simplicity. To wit:

From “Voice:”

Amazing, Nate thought. Thirty seconds into their first face-to-face conversation in several years and he already wanted to strangle the man.
**************************

….his last waking thoughts are of the prostitutes’ children who sang so beautifully. How did  they feel about being hidden behind those screens? Did it seem a kindness that their voices alone should represent them to the world of others? Why should these privileged others be spared the deformity its victims had no part in causing? Is it better to be known whole or to conceal what makes us unworthy of love?
**************************

Even if Julian has ulterior motives for inviting him [on this trip], does it necessarily mean he’s totally without warm brotherly feelings? People have lots of moving parts, and trying to reduce motives for simplicity’s sake is always dangerous.

As Nate views the art of the sixteenth century painter Tintoretto  at the Scuola San Rocco, he can’t help contrasting it with what he has so far seen on display at the Biennale:

How comforting it must’ve been to know that everybody was proceeding from the same basic assumptions about God and creation and arriving at the same conclusions about the eternal existential questions: Who are we? What is our purpose?…

Renaissance painting and architecture were both designed to make the individual feel inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, which to  them was, well, grand. Was it the loss of this grandeur, and of the faith that was its foundation, that led to the fragmentation of today’s world, to postmodern silliness, art as a sight gag? Possibly, though Nate has little affection for Tintoretto’s muscle-bound figures, their heavy, brutal limbs foreshortened to emphasize their relentless determination to climb up and away from Mother Earth. Even his gray-bearded elders looked ripped and ready for battle, which might be why Nate, feeling paunchy, leave the Scuola San Rocco feeling bullied.

The Miracle of St. Mark Freeing a Slave, by Tintoretto 1548

*******************************

Ray, the chief actor in “Intervention,” sells real estate in Maine. His current clients are the Bells, whom he describes as “cultural refugees from Texas.” He guesses that like many others who have vacationed in the Pine Tree State, they have wholeheartedly bought into the state’s motto, “The Way Life Should Be.”

That happened pretty often actually….”If things get really bad,” people said, “we’ll sell everything and move to Maine,” as if it were a foreign country. Liberals came fleeing conservatives, libertarians fleeing government,  traders fleeing Wall Street, film people fleeing L A, everybody felling the nation’s collective culture, as if there were no cable TV or internet access north of Boston, and by means of geography they could escape Snooki and hip-hop and Sarah Palin and bird flu.

He adds, “One rough winter, followed by a black fly-rich June, was usually sufficient to send such folks scurrying back to wherever they came from.”

After the exhausting ordeal of house hunting, Cliff Bell is eager to go out for dinner:

“I want some of those clams you get up here. The ones with the little penises.”

His wife opened her mouth to say something, then closed it again, evidently deciding that just because it was teed up didn’t mean you had to hit it.

I really enjoyed “Intervention.” It showcases Russo’s dry and rather rueful wit, always a pleasure to encounter. The story ends, though, with the kind of sad realization that Russo is especially good at putting into words:

….people cling to folly as if it were their most prized possession, defending it, sometimes with violence, against the possibility of wisdom.

“Voice” and “Intervention” are the second and third stories respectively in this collection. While I liked the other two – “Horseman” and “Milton and Marcus” – I didn’t think that they were quite of the same caliber as “Voice” and “Intervention.”

Richard Russo

In recent weeks, I’ve read a slew of rave reviews of new story collections. Trajectory has certainly whetted my appetite for more of the same.

Additional recommendations gratefully accepted!

And as for Venice’s streets being “famously full of water,” this is probably a reference to the telegram that American humorist Robert Benchley (1889-1945) purportedly sent to Harold Ross, his editor at The New Yorker, when he – Benchley –  arrived in Venice:

Streets full of water. Please advise.

Robert Benchley

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