When I was a child, my favorite book was Louis Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy. Harriet, in case you don't know, is a scruffy, almost-outcast young girl who spends her time observing people up close and in secret, writing about what she sees, enduring the consequences of her discoveries. I must have read it fifteen times.
Thirty years later, upon giving the book to my daughter, I pondered my attachment to Harriet. The reason became clear. It wasn't that both Harriet and I were writers. I connected with Harriet because we are both, at heart, nosy little girls. Nosiness is underrated. After all, what is it but curiosity about what other people do when they run up against life? And what is good literature but their stories, and what are readers but privileged spies?
Richard Russo garnered a well-deserved Pulitzer for his novel Empire Falls (Vintage, $14.95, 512 pp.) in 2002, but his 1993 Nobody's Fool (Alfred A. Knopf, $14.95, 560 pp.) remains my favorite of his works. It's one of those books I read all or part of every year. Nobody's Fool concerns itself with one Sully--Donald Sullivan--a middle-aged, nearly disabled day laborer in economically depressed upstate New York. On the most superficial level, Nobody's Fool is about a man surrounded by people he has hurt, puzzled, and even, once in a while, helped, in spite of himself. It's closely observed and, at moments, quite funny.
Yet Russo is after more than good humor and careful observation, as he always is. Nobody's Fool brings the reader up close to the way that people live with broken ties and reconciliation, the price of abuse and irresponsibility, and the necessity of forgiveness. I can't think of a modern novel that is filled with such subtle hints of grace, hints that prompt me to examine my own life more carefully to see what I may be missing.
Michael Malone, though, comes close in his 1984 novel Handling Sin (Sourcebooks, $15, 640 pp.). Malone is an interesting character, a bona fide Real Writer with many novels to his credit. He also spent a number of years writing award-winning scripts for television soap operas, most notably One Life to Live. Really.
When it was first published, Handling Sin was universally acclaimed a comic masterpiece, in the picaresque tradition of Dickens, Thackeray, and Cervantes. Not many critics noted, however, that the title harks back to the fourteenth-century Handlyng Synne, by Robert Mannyng, a member of the Gilbertine order, who translated stories illustrating the Ten Commandments and the seven deadly sins from a lengthy French work in verse, …