For a comic novelist, such human pretension is a gift. In “The Gravestone and the Commode” — a surreal juxtaposition that appeared outside his window one day when workers remodeling a bathroom in his house temporarily stored the toilet next to an old headstone in the backyard — Russo writes: “There’s no need for any writer to make the world a funny place. It is a funny place.” Not to everyone, it turns out. He is soon involved in a dinner party row with a woman who considers him cruel for making fun of people who stutter. Russo’s retort may not be a woke joke, but it isn’t flippant: “The best humor,” he points out, “has always resided in the chamber next to the one occupied by suffering.”
Pain and laughter also react chemically in “Imagining Jenny,” a standout, which was originally published as the afterword to a memoir by Jennifer Finney Boylan. Here, Russo recounts the brutal week he spent at the bedside of the author, a friend of many years, as she underwent gender reassignment surgery.
In a semi-state of shock over what’s about to happen to his former beer-drinking buddy Jim, a fellow professor at Colby, Russo confesses to a series of anxious gaffes — referring to Jenny as him — and seeks “solace and understanding in narrative,” even though these were “cautionary parables of transformation, of men who turn into wolves, into vampires, even into insects.” He also makes an un-woke joke about the surgery.
It is an outburst of exasperation as much with the situation as his own sense that what’s happening here — a man transforming into a woman — threatens not just his personal but his professional life. “As social and natural scientists continue to erode our belief in free will by revealing the extent of our genetic and cultural programming,” he writes, with nostrils flaring, “novelists continue to hold people accountable for their actions and the consequences of those actions. This is the fiction writer’s manifesto, because without it there’s no story.”
For a moment, it’s as if Russo has forgotten his own earlier advice: “If playing God scares you,” he declares, fully confident of his omniscient powers as a novelist, “there are other professions.”
The problem for Russo is that destiny decided long ago that this was the only one for him.