Thursday, November 1, 2012
It is impossible to read the book without putting Paul Newman's face on the character on the page, since I've seen the movie already, and it's one of my subdued favorites. As I mentioned someplace else, it's one of my two favorite Paul Newman performances, along with The Verdict. I had much less difficulty getting Bruce Willis's and Jessica Tandy's faces off of their characters' names on the page (although both gave great performances as well, especially Tandy), and I had no problem at all getting the faces of the more minor characters completely out of my mind as I read, as those characters share a lot less in common with their film's namesakes. But Newman so nailed his character that his face was everywhere as I read.
It was a bitter shock to read a few scenes where his character (Donald Sullivan) and Willis's (Carl Roebuck) have a conversation in which both drop the racial N-bomb quite a few times, and this happens in a much more abbreviated way towards the end as well. I simply don't see either character, especially Sully, using the word in conversation; both characters are much too carefree, and both are quite easygoing around everyone in town. Sully only has bitterness towards his long-dead father, and perhaps himself; he's not even angry at his ex-wife, or his ex-lover, or anyone--not even Officer Raymer, really, who he has an oddly friendly scene with towards the end, or Roebuck, who he sees more as a son/friend figure, and who he covers with a blanket when he crashes at Sully's place. So I feel Russo made an error with a decision about his characters here.
Besides that, there were no errors to be had in the whole book, which says a lot since it couldn't, in my mind, hold up to the movie. But it comes close, and it reads as a sort of pleasantly washed-up male version of an Anne Tyler novel--perhaps close to The Accidental Tourist, in many ways, though Richard Russo's characters are all much more idiosyncratic and eccentric. (Much more so, even, than Tyler's Accidental Tourist and Muriel, who is very kooky indeed.)
The screenplay by Robert Benton is a masterpiece, and keeps shockingly close to the book, to the point where the movie's best dialogue is taken verbatim from the novel. (Except for the judge's line I love from the film, which turns out to be Benton's. When told that Officer Raymer is under suspension, he says, "Anesthesia is what he should be under ...") Gone are the scenes with the N-bomb, thank God. A bartender (Birdie) and the bar's owner (Tiny) are morphed into just Birdie. Gone are Sully's accidental arsonist past, and the pharmacist's request that he burn down his store. Sully doesn't have a lover in the film, which was possibly another mistake in the book (I don't see Sully sleeping with another man's wife for twenty years, but that's what he does in the book), and his son doesn't end up, temporarily, with Toby at the end, nor is Toby bisexual like she is in the book. All of these are great decisions on Benton's part; he didn't make one single wrong move. When I finished the book, I wanted to watch the movie again, even though I've seen it on cable very recently.
The book itself is very well-written, and Russo deserves the kudos he gets for his characterization and dialogue, and breezy writing style. Though there were way too many instances of repetitive tags, like "he admitted," and though Sully (and the other characters) are said to smile way too often as they say things, he and his landlady are exceptionally drawn characters, and Russo's storytelling ability inspired me to re-start my first-person detective novel and write it in third-person omniscient, creating a much more specific world and personality set for each of my characters. Writing is great when it inspires you to make such a drastic shift in your own writing.
I look forward to reading the other books by Russo I bought recently at a used book store, especially his Empire Falls. Stay tuned for those.