Books

The Whore's Child and Other Stories
by Richard Russo
Alfred A. Knopf/$24

Richard Russo's fiction usually arrives in rambling, delightful, 400-page novels, like Nobody's Fool (made into a fine 1994 film) and Empire Falls (winner of a Pulitzer Prize). Great lumps of literature like those, the reader knows, will take a while to finish. They must be read over several weeks' time in each room of the house, at the beach, during lunch breaks — even stuck in traffic. But Russo's books are so generous and accessible you don't usually mind the heft.

In The Whore's Child, a slim volume of seven stories, Russo proves his storytelling gifts are just as well suited to tales that last no longer than a sit in a comfy chair.

Fans of Russo's work might have come across a few of these stories in high-profile magazines, but most of the material here will be fresh. Readers unfamiliar with Russo might find this collection an effective introduction to his fiction. Be warned: the stories here are more ambiguous in tone and outcome than Russo's humorous, tightly plotted novels. This Russo is light, but not lite.

The title story illustrates Russo's more somber approach in short fiction. In "The Whore's Child," an aging nun appears in a university fiction-writing class. Although she isn't officially registered, the professor lets her stay. Rather than write artsy-fartsy stories like her callow young classmates, the nun assembles a memoir of her tortured past. As the nun's compelling tale unfolds, Russo also explores the themes of memory and of the difference between reality and fiction. Nunsense, it ain't.

Several of the more approachable stories explore variations on flawed marriages from the point of view of the child. The most charming of these tales, "The Mysteries of Linwood Hart," concerns a daydreaming boy who wants to learn to play baseball. Linwood's coach decides to court the boy's mother and volunteers to repaint the Hart house while Linwood's father is away. Linwood's attempts to make sense of his suddenly complicated life will connect with many readers.

Despite its careful construction, Russo's short fiction provides more insight into the author's private world than his novels do. And these peeks are not a bad thing — just not quite what you might expect based on his earlier work. But what The Whore's Child really shows us is a writer with enough ambition to try new forms for his art. In finding those new forms, Russo is discovering he may have new things to say.

—Mark E. Hayes

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