Award-winning novelist Richard Russo may have a Pulitzer Prize and several bestselling books under his belt, but he hasn’t forgotten his humble roots here in Upstate New York. “The Saratoga area is my old stomping ground,” says Russo, who grew up about 45 minutes west of Saratoga Springs in Gloversville. “My father was, well, a gambler, and during the summers, I can remember many a trip with him to the track in Saratoga for the flat races and even the trotters.”
The author of Empire Falls, which fetched him the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Russo will be returning to the Spa City on Wednesday, August 21. Though just in time for Travers Week, Russo isn’t returning to Saratoga to relive old racing memories, but rather to discuss his latest novel, and his first standalone book in a decade, Chances Are. The event will take place at Skidmore College’s Arthur Zankel Music Center as part of WAMC’s Off the Shelf author series, and Russo is slated to discuss and read portions from Chances Are.
The novel is a bit of a departure for the veteran novelist; it’s his first mystery. Set on an ideal September day in Martha’s Vineyard in 2015, the book examines the lives of three old friends and the secrets they’ve kept from each other over the decades. They’re also still haunted by a mystery on the Vineyard that changed their lives in 1971: the disappearance of Jacy Rockafellow, the young woman that each of them loved. “The mystery format seemed to be the natural format, because it’s a book about lies,” says Russo. “And one of the questions that the book raises is: ‘To what extent can friendship of the deepest sort survive lies?'”
Friendship and lies may be the central themes, but Chances Are tackles a number of complex issues, particularly pertaining to baby boomers, who grew up during the Vietnam War era. Russo, who sets many of his novels in New York and Maine, where he currently resides, chose Martha’s Vineyard as the setting for this novel to create a strong contrast between the beautiful, carefree atmosphere of the island and the suspense over Jacy Rockafellow’s disappearance, as well as the lies, secrets and war that are threatening to tear the three friends apart. “To the people who summer on the Vineyard, it’s not going to be the island that they recognize because it’s being seen through the eyes of these three middle-class men,” says Russo. “These three characters’ life experiences, what happens to them, could not be farther removed from this magical, privileged place. And yet in their own way, their friendship seems to be as powerful as the forces in the world that try to destroy affection and love.”
Russo says that the novel could’ve easily been set in Saratoga during the glitzy, tourist-rich track season—that is, if he hadn’t already used the setting in one of his earlier novels, 1993’s Nobody’s Fool. “That book’s about an unlucky town called North Bath [based on Gloversville] and a lucky town called Schuyler Springs, which is clearly based on Saratoga,” says Russo. “It has all the things that Saratoga has: a performing arts center, a racetrack, an artists colony.” In 2016, Russo published a sequel called Everybody’s Fool, also featuring North Bath and Schuyler Springs.
As for returning to his old stomping grounds, or close enough to it, Russo says that Saratoga always brings back fond memories for him. “My mother was particularly in love with Saratoga because, back when she was a girl, it had all those grand hotels,” he says. “So we spent a lot of time there when I was young.”
For more on Russo’s upcoming talk or to purchase tickets to it, click here.