When the biggest news in the literary community is that the federal Department of Justice is suing Apple and five major publishing houses for fixing prices of e-books, or that the Pulitzer Prize for fiction went to exactly no one this year, it's easy to wonder whether we're getting away from the primary purpose of writing, and reading, books. That is, to experience the written word, to learn, to immerse oneself in another world even for a short while.
SCENES FROM THE TALES Two of the four images by Kate Russo in Interventions.
Enter Interventions, the latest project from part-time Mainer Richard Russo and his daughter, Kate, both of whom will appear at Longfellow Books this Friday evening. Presented as "a tribute to the printed book," Interventions is a story collection — four individually bound volumes, together with four illustrated panels, gathered in a 4.5-by-7.5-inch slipcase, published by Down East Books. But it is more than that. It is the first collaboration between Richard, the author of several bestsellers including 2002's fiction Pulitzer winner, Empire Falls, and Kate, who studied at Colby College, got an advanced degree from the Slade School of Fine Art in London, and now lives in Rockland. It is, as Richard put it on the phone earlier this week, "a marriage of visual images with storytelling."
For all this celebratory language and purpose, however, the collection is rather melancholy. There's a sense of resignation that runs throughout the book, of recognizing one's limitations and choosing to move beyond them or not. Regardless of which path is chosen, the limitations will always linger.
Each of the four stories features an intervention of one sort or another, which serves as an emotional catalyst. In the title piece, written specially for this project, a Downeast real-estate agent recognizes that a home-seller's baggage — literally, boxes and boxes of knick-knacks and crap — is weighing her down; he makes the rather unprofessional decision to intervene, to remove the boxes, to make the space more inviting to potential buyers. In doing so, he allows himself to address his own past — and future. It's a positive arc, but the last line suggests something other than triumph: "Outside, it was snowing hard, the beginning of yet another Maine winter, not his last."
The final piece, a non-fiction exploration of Richard's relationship with his hometown of Gloversville, New York, is the most affecting, and the most relevant to the book's overarching idea — that marriage of mediums, that push and pull between new and old. It is a damning portrait of what happens to an industrial town when the industry moves elsewhere, but also, more so, the poisons we overlook to when an industry defines who we are. Of how a place can stay so deeply under our skin long after we've left. Of how we romanticize the past.
Richard admits that that Kate's paintings are "not what I would have predicted." The colors are muted and the images are haunting and simple, underscoring the precariousness in Richard's stories. They are bloody and a little bit beautiful, like the lives Richard describes. They make the collection richer, just as they do in Kate and Richard's favorite illustrated volumes — A Child's Garden of Verses and Treasure Island. To be sure, Interventions is not a book for kids. But perhaps these are the fables of 2012.
INTERVENTIONS | published by Down East Books | 224 pages (4 volumes in a slipcase), $40 | Kate and Richard Russo | Longfellow Books, One Monument Way, Portland | May 4 @ 6 pm, free | 207.772.4045 | longfellowbooks.com