“At sixty, he was divorced from his wife, carrying on halfheartedly with another man’s, estranged from his son, devoid of self-knowledge, badly crippled and virtually unemployable – all of which he stubbornly confused with independence.”
“Nobody’s Fool” by Richard Russo (1993)
I think it was my love for Bruce Willis and my desire to see all of his movies that lead me to 1994’s Nobody’s Fool. Paul Newman stars as Donald “Sully” Sullivan and acts his way to his 10th Oscar nomination. Jessica Tandy – in her last film – plays Beryl Peoples, Sully’s former eighth grade teacher and current landlady. Willis and Melanie Griffith play Carl and Toby Roebuck; he Sully’s “friend” and provider of construction work and she Sully’s crush; “the prettiest girl in Bath”.
I’ve often said that if you love a movie, you often want more; you want to see the sequel, all the films in the series or the television version. I love reading source novels. They serve as an excellent way to get more and I’m always fascinated to compare the novel to the screenplay; what elements of the story did the screenwriter zero in on and why?
Set in the fictional town of North Bath, New York (meant to represent Ballston Spa, NY), Nobody’s Fool charts the exploits of ne’er-do-well Sully who, at age 60, has failed to make anything of himself in the eyes of the world. This does not stop the townspeople from loving him; very few can see and have been effected by the negative side of his careless attitude towards life. His landlady, Miss Beryl, adores Sully and has faith in his ability to make good as a man even at this late stage. She relies on his presence in her home, much more than she does that of her son, Clive, who runs the bank in town and is the man behind the proposed theme park that will hopefully bring prosperity to the area.
Sully’s best friend is Rub Squeers, a man much younger than Sully who is repulsive in appearance but who will do anything for Sully. Rub is by Sully’s side for every dirty construction job thrown to them by Carl Roebuck, owner of Tip Top Construction, who often hires Sully off the books for home improvement or demolition jobs. Though a young man, Carl has suffered a heart attack but still foolishly lives with abandon, smoking and drinking and philandering. Carl’s victim and wife, Toby, deserves better and Sully tries to suppress his love for her while he and Toby often sit in her kitchen and talk. Sully was working for Carl one day when he fell off a ladder. Sully has a severely damaged knee now and has – with the “help” of lawyer Wirf – been trying to sue Carl for months. The charming thing about Nobody’s Fool is the way all these characters interact with each other. For example, Sully and Wirf leave court losers again in their ongoing lawsuit against Carl just to sit down at a poker game with him and trade barbs.
Into this charming small town atmosphere arrive Sully’s estranged son and his family for Thanksgiving. Not suited to marriage or fatherhood, Sully simply walked out of his son’s life years ago. Sully’s ex-wife and Peter’s mother, Vera, is a basket case who has remarried the easy-going Ralph, who has raised Peter as his own. Peter’s wife is ready for a divorce and she storms out after Thanksgiving dinner taking two of their three kids and leaving Will with Peter. Peter and his dad, Sully, begin to tentatively reintegrate themselves into each others lives, much to Rub’s jealous chagrin.
The dialogue in this novel is singing. Richard Russo injects his characters with crackling senses of humour and there is much in the book to make you chuckle. The innocent joviality of the film, however, is replaced by a sombreness in the novel, a starkness that reflects the ripple effect Sully’s inability to be responsible has had on some of the people around him. While Sully is certainly amiable and good fun, the trouble he can cause even those he’s fond of and his carelessness in life has had consequences. Sully blames his long dead brutal, abusive, drunken brawler of a father for the way he is; his issues are generational. When his son and grandson enter his life, and when he finally exasperates his longtime paramour, the married Ruth, he senses it may be time to take ownership of his life and shape up. Sully struggles with the possibility that the way he is “wired” may make this difficult if not impossible.
A theme the novel explores is one of people not taking control of their circumstances and waiting for some cosmic change to occur that will drag them out of their slump. The proposed Ultimate Escape Theme Park will revive North Bath, suffering ever since its springs dried up and hotels left the area. The populace is awaiting the theme park to revive their fortunes, in the meantime they blame the town itself for their troubles. Sully’s life will change when the trifecta he plays every week hits. As a younger man, Sully assumed his father finally dying would free him from his dad’s sinister grip. Hapless Rub spends his days wishing for things like jelly donuts, warm coats and factories that will employ him. Cass, who runs the local coffee shop that serves as Sully’s base, is waiting for her dementia-riddled mother to die so she can sell and get out. Sully and Cass both await the demise of parents to free them just to find it hasn’t worked out that way. Russo suggests that people have the power to change themselves and should do so.
“Every time (Sully) laid eyes on Peter he felt in the pit of his stomach the vague, monstrous debt a man owes, a debt more difficult to make good on than money you don’t have. A grandson simply extended the debt, let you know that you still owed it, that the interest is compounded. The more he thought about what he owed Peter, the more he despaired of identifying the debt, even as the need to give his son something became more real and urgent. His having thoughtlessly bought his grandson a Coke at eleven in the morning had stayed with him, as had Peter’s observation that whatever Sully had to give, you could be sure that this was not what was needed at the moment”
Another theme I could identify with as the father of two boys was this idea of the debt a man owes, not just to his progeny but to those around him; society at large, co-workers, friends and neighbours. Sully has many monetary debts that have him reeling in the end but, as the passage above states, the arrival of his son and grandson provide the impetus to finally reward Miss Beryl’s faith in him and finally arrive at a place of responsibility and taking control of his own life and actions. Sully, even at his advanced age, begins to implement change and not only does he not have to sacrifice who he is to do this but indeed he approaches gaining complete contentment within his own skin.
Be careful at this point; some may consider this a spoiler. There is a major difference between the novel and the script that threw me. There is a charming plot point in the film that has Sully almost going away with the “prettiest girl in Bath”, Toby Roebuck, the wife of Sully’s contractor friend, Carl. But Paul Newman as Sully decides he needs to stay and assume some responsibility and so he sends Toby off on her own. This whole scenario pairing 69-year-old Newman with 37-year-old Melanie Griffith is accomplished on screen due to Newman’s charisma and good looks. In the novel, however, this doesn’t happen and instead Toby has a dalliance with somebody other than Sully and it is apparent that this is a type of defeat for Sully. I didn’t care for this.
Richard Russo packs a lot of story and back story in the 549 pages of this book. The tale is continued, actually, in Russo’s 2016 sequel, Everybody’s Fool. Nobody’s Fool is one of my favourite winter movies and it’s always good company on a cold night. I enjoy watching how others put up with the conditions, with the snow and ice. Loving this story so much, I sought out the book, bought it and read it. There was some lulls in the novel but generally it was a good read containing some heartfelt elements as well as some sparkling comedy. The book can be found at Amazon and – for much less – at AbeBooks. And, by all means, check out the excellent film.