“Poetry does this to us. You can quickly either soar or drown in depression. You can have a pretty good first line but not a strong enough thought to tag along more lines and sometimes in the middle words become bored and make war on one another. Notebooks are full of these fragments, shrapnel of our intention. Life is short on conclusions and that’s why it’s often a struggle to end a poem. Some are lost forever. Sometimes you walk around with versions of a poem in your head and it won’t come clean. You are enslaved to this language of disorder and can brood upon it for days and weeks. When the poem finally does work, your spirit soars and you forget the difficulty, like you forget pain afterward. Some of the extreme behaviour you see in the poet species is likely attributable to these struggles. When the brain spends this much time enfevered it is liable to affect the behaviour which for a long period was a common joke around academia.”
Jim Harrison, The Ancient Minstrel (2016)
“I’ve got this personal feeling things are not supposed to be happening to people all of the time. At least I’m not designed for it. There should be more open spaces between events. That’s my clear thought for today.” (Jim Harrison, from his novella The Seven-Ounce Man)
My reading has tailed off of late, which means I have to pick up the pace if I’m going to make my quota of nine books a month. Nine books a month times twelve months equals 108 books. Which means Cliff succeeds at the “100 Book Challenge” and doesn’t have to hem and haw and make up a dozen different excuses why he couldn’t keep up and why he isn’t more committed to the celebration and preservation of the printed word, etc., etc., and so on.
Ah, but if only every book was as good as The Risk Pool. I’d take the “200 Book Challenge” and make it with room to spare.
I’m a huge fan of Richard Russo’s work. I think I found The Risk Pool on-line somewhere. Maybe Better World Books. I like dealing with them and their bargain bin is often pretty darn good. Slowly but surely, I’m paring down my “wish list”; it currently takes up 4 pages of a steno notebook I keep handy. Books I simply must own, by writers I admire without reservation. Russo’s on that list, right near the top. He’s a wonder.
The Risk Pool is his second book, an unbelievably good sophomore effort. Mohawk, his debut, was excellent but The Risk Pool eclipses it. It’s comparable in quality to Russo’s That Old Cape Magic and Empire Falls…but not quite up to the lofty standard set by The Straight Man, which I consider to be the author’s finest (and funniest) novel. “Funny” is an operative word when one encounters a Russo tale because as well as being populated by flawed, wounded human beings and blessed by compelling plot lines, his works often provoke bleats of laughter…and that’s certainly the case with The Risk Pool.
Ned Hall is the narrator but, really, the central figure of the novel is his father, Sam. Sam is a legend around the town of Mohawk; he survived the Normandy landing and the Battle of Bulge, fought his way to Berlin…and returned home a changed man. His young, blushing bride swiftly becomes disillusioned with his gambling and whoring, his determination to have a good time regardless of the consequences to those closest to him. There’s a separation but Sam won’t hear of a divorce. He remains a distant presence in his son’s life, at least until his mother suffers a breakdown and Ned finds himself his father’s ward, with all the complications accompanying that status. Sam’s motley assortment of friends—drunks and local characters—give Ned a different perspective on life in Mohawk: the perqs of winning and the cost, in human terms, of drawing the low card.
Looking for a book that is, at once, literary and a joy to read, a novel you can’t bear to part with until you’ve found out how it ends? The Risk Pool satisfies on every count. It is the kind of tome authors dream of writing and devoted readers pine after. Beautiful and sad, subtle and powerful, filled with desperate, hope-filled people, who behave with the courage and foolishness their circumstances require.
Highest possible recommendation.