Nobody’s Fool. Everybody’s Fool. Somebody’s Fool. Well, every book Richard Russo writes proves that none of those characterization apply to him. Russo earned the Pulitzer Prize when he wrote about a town called Empire Falls, but when he penned Nobody’s Fool in 1993 he clearly started something: something big, anguished, funny, filled with desperation yet very compelling. And though this latest is called Somebody’s Fool, it certainly reminds us that Russo’s favorite novel name does not include him. And word is there’s yet another “fool”-book to come.

Imagine, for example, a town named Bath. This Bath has a relatively long history but is, these days, struggling to survive and finally relents to being incorporated into the more flourishing city next door. Russo early on asks the question: “How had all this come to pass? Well, the recession the whole damn country was still in the middle of was partly to blame, but many argued that the town had been circling the drain long before that.” Still, its long-standing citizens must carry on their duties and tend to their (mostly) very fraught lives. What about the town’s men in blue, for example, who now (temporarily?) have a woman to lead them? What about the tavern owners, the restaurant owners, the hotel owners, the operators of filling stations, the guys who tow cars? Should they sell? Upgrade? Improve? Please show me the money to do that! What about the teachers at the local JC? What about former citizens who’ve earlier fled, but now feel they’ve left their lives in the streets and feel compelled to return? Everyone’s looking for a better life, right? A life that makes sense, a love that will last, despite all the troubles that have gone on before? And what about . . . . . . Sully?

Oh, yes, Sully!  Sully is dead, of course, but Sully’s ghost is everywhere. Sully is that most unforgettable character from Russo’s first “fool” book, Nobody’s Fool, (played by Paul Newman in the movie), a difficult man who frequented a particular tavern where his stool is still labeled! He bore children who now argue and fuss about their past relationship with him, a struggle that never seems never to go away.

In fact, every character in the book carries a wagonload of problems: they spar, they fight, they yell, they drink; each struggles to find happiness, and most to find . . . LOVE! Do they find it? Stay tuned!

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Tough, Beguiling, Captivating: The Somewhat Devilish Path of Ben Fountain’s “Devil Makes Three”

“The country has a coup, and Tommy Rittenhouse throws a fuckfest.”

And there you have it. Early on, exactly at p. 12 of Devil Makes Three, Ben Fountain uses Matt, his major male character (of many, many important characters, both male and female) to sum something up about the state and status of Haiti in September of 1991.

Devil Makes Three is a long novel—531 sometimes grim, sometimes sexy, always human and thoroughly jam-packed pages—as well as a brilliant one. Written in the high-stakes, original and sometimes cockamamie prose that only Fountain has complete control over, he paints scene after scene of how life goes on—and ofttimes does not—when a sudden coup betrays a nation seemingly at last beginning to get its feet on the ground (and with the overwhelming support of its population). The military, known as FAdH, has deposed the recently and overwhelmingly elected President Jean Bertrand Aristide, seized power, thank you, and now that it’s in charge, will do whatever it takes to retain control.

Matt, an American and an experienced diver, runs a scuba-diving business in one of the beach areas a ways from the capital, along with his Haitian friend, Alix. Alix has a sister named Misha, who is a brilliant, sensitive, very-much-her own woman PhD student in the US whom Matt is in love with, and she and Alix are from an old and honorable Haitian family.

It doesn’t take long for the real madness to start. Before the day is out wherein Matt has made the above observation, he has been capriciously beaten by a suddenly arriving squad of the successful, well-armed and quite gung-ho military and his place of business has been laid waste. But the fun (I hope you understand irony) has barely begun.

There are other characters of course. Quite a few. Shelly Graver, for example, also known as Audrey. Shelly is  a newly arrived employee to CIA Headquarters on Haiti and eager to make a name for herself. How, you may ask, is the CIA involved in Haiti? Well, you’d best count all those boxes upon boxes of munitions arriving nightly, under cover, at the airport. After all, what does the US think of the coup? Will they try to replace the military government at some point? To reinstall Aristide? This is late 1991, remember. A presidential election looms in the US. Therefore: what does President Bush think? So what does the contender, Clinton, think? Stay tuned!

Another of the major characters, Dr. Jean-Hubert Larocque, runs a hospital established to take care of the illnesses and misfortunes of the native Haitian people, partially funded by a variety of American donors. Under the fraught circumstances, Misha decides to forego her return to the US for graduate study and get a job at the hospital. Dr. Jean, a friend of the family, becomes her boss and later on, her . . . but never mind. (Just stay tuned!)

In fact, Voodoo itself (or Voudou, as you’ll become familiar with in the book) plays a sometimes major/sometimes minor role. As does Haitian French itself, but don’t fret: its meaning is cleverly rendered within a sentence or two.

And we mustn’t forget Commanding General Concers, the military officer at the top of the coup, who has developed a particular interest in Matt’s ocean-diving expertise and whisks him out of the prison where he’d been held (along with Alix, but don’t ask) to seek his help in trying to ferret out and recover the remains of the five hundred year-old, shipwrecked (he thinks), somewhere-right-off-the-Atlantic-coast-of-Haiti Santa Maria (Columbus’ flagship, don’t you know). (Gold! There’s gotta be gold in them there wrecks!)

So all these major characters—and many more—play serious roles in the outcome of this full-bore, jam-packed and nothing-short-of-brilliant novel by the multiple-award winning novelist, Ben Fountain.

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Today’s Story Unleashes “The Condor’s Shadow”!

Wow! It’s been a while! This is the first time I’ve penned my Today’s Story blog since . . .uh . . . May of 2020! I apologize for the Great Interregnum!

First of all, I was finally able to get a new novel out. Some of you, those who used to hear me read at the now vanished Cornelia Street Café, have heard bits and pieces of The Condor’s Shadow, but now you get to zip through the whole thing yourselves, cover to cover. For pretty much everybody who’s read it so far, Condor has meant a great deal! I’m happy–nay, thrilled!–to report that the book is scoring big on Amazon. Five stars is their top rating, right? And it’s only been out a couple of weeks. The great writer and my wonderfully supportive friend, Ben Fountain, has told me, “I hope it blows up big!” And apparently, that’s what’s happening.

But since the book is still new to the “just published” world, some have complained they’ve had a difficult time finding the book and, for that reason, I’m including the link in this column. Just click on


and you’ll be ready to pounce! Sixteen bucks later, you’re turning the pages of The Condor’s Shadow. (Of course, if you prefer to read it on Kindle, it’s a mere $5.99.)

Wait! You say you don’t even know what it’s about? Sorry! In my excitement I forgot that not everyone who’s reading this column has attended my readings all those years ago at the Cornelia Street Café. So here’s a teaser about my principal character, to whet your appetite:

He’s wandered state-to-state, changing identities for nearly two decades. Finally about to start life anew as a small-town Montana journalist, he’s suddenly confronted by his darkly checkered past: the love of his life he’d felt forced to surrender, and the violent act that first expelled him onto the road and changed his life forever.

And if even that doesn’t grab you, consider that those who’ve read advance copies have insisted, “Jim Story again proves to be a master storyteller”, or “a ferocious current keeps pulling you along,” or else they’ve remarked on “the pure magical brilliance of the language”. Not too shabby, hey?

So! I can hardly wait for the rest of you to read it and draw your own conclusions. Enjoy! Best of health until next time, and happy reading! By the way, if you like it, don’t forget to place those stars on Amazon!

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When Margaret Verble’s second novel, Cherokee America, was published, I felt compelled to read it. I’d read her first book, Maud’s Line, for the same reason that called to me here—the pull of the personal, the sense of a shared background. In the case of that earlier book, of course, the name Maud was a particular draw as well, since that was also the name of the town in Oklahoma where I was born. 

I’d been delighted by Maud’s Line (see my blog post of July 20, 2017), and I wasn’t alone, since it was a finalist for the Pulitzer. I’m happy to report I’m even more delighted by Cherokee America.

This compelling second novel is quite remarkable. Considering the title, you might expect a history of the Cherokee Nation, but that’s not it. Cherokee America is a woman’s name. Throughout the book, she’s called only Check.

The novel is a sprawling, character-rich depiction of a group of people—Cherokee full-bloods and half-bloods along with some blacks and even a few whites—living in the post-Civil War territory referred to throughout as the Cherokee Nation. It’s the 1870s. The state of Oklahoma does not yet exist, nor will it until 1907. (In my inherited family bible, where births, deaths and marriages are noted, both my father’s father and two of his older brothers are recorded as born in “I.T.,” meaning “Indian Territory.” My father, born in 1908, slipped under the wire.)

In Verble’s wonderfully detailed pages, several different but closely inter-related families—mostly farmers—eke out a living while the specter of a future takeover of their land by the federal government looms in the background. I won’t go into a lot of detail about the contours of the plot. But, in addition to the farms, there’s a bawdyhouse, there are shoot-outs, there are murders, there’s well-witching, a frantic search for a suspected stash of gold, plus one of the more gripping endings you’re likely to come across. All the while, Dennis Bushyhead (don’t ask), Treasurer of the Cherokee Nation, travels repeatedly back and forth to Tallaquah, its capitol.

The last part of the book, as I’ve already alluded to, involves a profound struggle, a kind of metaphorical rope-pulling contest. One or more persons commit a murder and—fearful that the federal government, centered in Arkansas, is only too eager to intrude into the Nation’s territory and prosecute the offender (on the grounds that the perpetrator may not be a Cherokee but a white man ), thereby gaining some leverage for a federal takeover—the families and their friends band together to create a posse, to seek out and deal with the perpetrators themselves, while being forced to lie to the two marshals sent by the judge (the famous “hanging judge,” Judge Isaac Parker), all in a quest to protect the integrity of the Nation. If this sounds abstract, it’s not. These amazing final pages read like a rootin’, tootin’ shoot-em-up Western, with lots of drama and surprises.

So, the major characters are the Singer family: Check, the mother, her husband, Andrew (who is dying), and their kids in order of birth: Connell, Hugh, Clifford, Otter and Paul. Check is the resourceful, resilient leader of a successful farm, with a dying husband to care for and a large family to love, raise, and instruct in both the toughness and resolve required for a difficult environment. Mostly it’s Check and the two oldest boys who are in the mix of the depicted events, but there’s plenty of interaction with neighbors, primarily the Corderys and the Bushyheads, and lots of other characters entering the mix. A hired hand named Puny, who is black, also plays a significant role.

To make things easier for the reader, there’s a Cast of Characters at the beginning. If your memory for names is as slippery as mine, you’ll consult it frequently.(But you did that when you read War and Peace, right?)

Side Note: those of you who read my 2015 novel, Problems of Translation, will remember that I couldn’t resist devoting a chapter to Sequoyah, justifiably lauded for inventing a written language for the Cherokees. Well, guess what? In this book the characters actually sometimes speak Cherokee, written in Sequoya’s syllabary but un-translated. What the characters are saying may puzzle you at first, even annoy you, until the very end. But when you finally realize what’s being said in that final stanza—which you will!—it will bring a smile to your face. Guaranteed.

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Vladimir Nabokov’s Enduring, Magical Lexical Flim-Flammery

Ah, words! Those of you who remember that I wrote a novel called Problems of Translation will hardly be surprised that the sounds as well as the meanings of those pesky little tools for constructing sentences are very close to my heart. Well, for all my fellow word-mavens, here’s a treat. This will be interesting if you haven’t encountered it before, or maybe it will still generate an astonished chuckle, even if you have.

Going through my files recently, I came across something I had copied down from Vladimir Navokov’s Pale Fire about a century ago (perhaps a little less).

Now, Nabokov was (and is) one of my much-loved writers (Pnin remains among my three all-time favorite novels). Chief among his attractions, of course, was his nearly unmatched facility with words. Whether in Russian or in English! And chief among the reasons for that talent was the sheer joy he took in both sound and meaning.  To my mind, nowhere is this more amply demonstrated than in Pale Fire.

Here’s the passage I came across (excerpted from page 260 of my paperback edition): “There exists to my knowledge one absolutely extraordinary, unbelievably elegant case [of what you ask? Read on!], where not only two, but three words are involved. The story itself is trivial enough (and probably apocryphal). A newspaper account of a Russian tsar’s coronation had, instead of korona (crown) the misprint vorona (crow), and when next day this was apologetically ‘corrected,’ it got misprinted a second time as korova (cow). The artistic correlation between the crown-crow-cow series and the Russian korona-vorona-korova series is something that would have, I am sure, enraptured my poet. I have seen nothing like it on lexical playfields and the odds against the double coincidence defy computation.”

Pretty spectacular, no? Did you pick up on the part where he said this was “probably apocryphal?” Which suggests, of course, that this “double coincidence” was something that  he invented himself! Question is, does that make it less astonishing? Or more?

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Jim Story & Matthew Lansburgh -Tuesday, Dec. 4th at the Cornelia St. Café!

Hello, all! I hope you’ve had a sparkling Thanksgiving holiday weekend! It was certainly a cold Thanksgiving Day here in NYC!

But here’s something that will warm your holiday season no matter what the weather!
On TuesdayDecember 4th  I’ll be reading at the Cornelia Street Café.
The time is 6-7:30 pm. (See below for location info and travel suggestions.)

This time I’ll be reading with Matthew Lansburgh, winner of the 2017 Iowa Short Fiction Award for his linked story collection, Outside is the Ocean. Matthew’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in journals such as One StoryGlimmerTrainEcotoneEpochElectric LiteratureStoryQuarterlyColumbia, Michigan Quarterly ReviewShenandoah, and Guernica. Matthew’s collection has been called “mesmerizing” by Andre Dubus III.

I’ll be reading from two new works, The Condor’s Shadow—my novel of twisted courage and a struggle for connection—which is scheduled for publication in 2019, plus from a collection of linked fiction called Soil, Sand, Stories, based loosely on my childhood. And—of course—from my novel, Problems of Translation, which has been dubbed “An insanely amusing adventure” (Gary Shteyngart).

Come join us for an all-fiction, early evening celebration
of the holiday season!

The date is December 4, a Tuesday; the time is from 6-7:30 pm; it’s at 29 Cornelia Street, and as usual, the Café’s cover ($10) will include a free glass of wine.


Take the A, C, E, B, D, F, or M train to West 4th St. Exit at south end of train. Cornelia Street starts at the intersection of West 4th and the west side of Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Avenue). Cafe’s phone: 212.989.9319

Check out the reading’s Facebook event page, the Café’s website or jimcstory.com.Share this post:

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On Jan. 29th, Come Brighten the New Year With Us!

Coming soon, an event about which I’m very excited!  

On MondayJanuary 29th, 6-7:30 pm at the Cornelia Street Café, I’ll be reading from two works of fiction: my newly completed novel, The Condor’s Shadow (a story of twisted courage and a struggle for connection) and my recently published novel, Problems of Translation, which Gary Shteyngart called, “an insanely amusing adventure.” And maybe—just maybe—there’ll be also a bit from a book of linked short stories I’m completing just now. (Its working title is Soil, Sand, Stories.)

But there’s more! I’m delighted to be sharing the stage with Lesley Dormen, whom I met at a writer’s conference in Italy eight years ago and have wanted to have as a co-reader ever since. Lesley’s novel, The Best Place To Be, was called “delightfully, crushingly funny” by The New York Times, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Ploughshares, The New York Times, and many other publications. She teaches fiction at The Writers Studio here in New York.

I hope you’ll put our upcoming reading on your calendar in red, and persuade your friends to come, too!

Looking forward to seeing you on the 29th!

Did I mention the date? It’s January 29th; a Monday, the time is from 6-7:30 pm; it’s at 29 Cornelia Street, and as usual, a $10 cover will include a free glass of wine.

Take the A, C, E, B, D, F, or M train to West 4th St. Exit at south end of train. Cornelia Street starts at the intersection of West 4th and the west side of Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Avenue). Cafe’s phone: 212.989.9319

Check out the Café website, the Facebook Event listing, and my website.

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Michael Chabon’s Moonglow: A Novel Shines From Within

Michael Chabon, of course, needs no introduction. But you may wonder whether his latest book, Moonglow: A Novel, is  actually a novel or a memoir. He calls this work a novel in the title itself and so it is, but he also refers to it as a memoir and so it often seems. He cautions you in the beginning with the following sentence (from his Author’s Note): “. . . . I have stuck to the facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” Clear enough?

But trust me, once you start reading, you’ll think, “Who cares?”

This terrific, sprightly book is about building a model of a Jewish colony on the moon. Well, not really. Mostly, it’s about his grandfather (the model-builder), reimagined in detail that’s as close-fitting as a grand prix champion’s driving gloves. Much of the book depends heavily on information apparently gathered by limning his grandfather’s thoughts as he lay dying. Some of it is written in first person as Michael Chabon, while the bulk is written in close third person following the character of said grandfather, including harrowing moments of his journey in World War II, written so vividly you could swear you were there, watching as a decapitated German officer perches atop his motorcycle at a muddy crossroads. (Incidentally–though not so incidental to the story–he was crossing Germany as fast as he could in the twilight of the war, in pursuit of Werner von Braun.)

Those same lively details rivet your attention in scenes within a mental institution or while on a snake-hunt in Florida. You’ll also see the inside of a prison, and wonder at what the man was able to get away with in defiance of both guards and common sense, as well as the rather extraordinary, and resourceful, compassion shown to a fellow inmate. Truly, the grandfather is an amazing, novel-sized character: fiercely intelligent, a wizard at model-building, sometimes an engineer, sometimes an entrepreneur or a salesman or pool hustler, at once immensely practical and highly impractical, stubborn, irascible, foolhardy, and as loyal to his periodically schizophrenic wife as is humanly possible.

That grandmother is a novel-sized character as well, her own story managing to be heart-warming, horrifying, and sexy in equal parts. The scene where those two meet has a twist you’ll never see coming. In short, this “memoir” is a big, sprawling, beautifully constructed hodgepodge of a novel, and really quite wonderful.

I’m not sure how much “memoir-istic license” was taken in developing the eventual, quite serendipitous meeting between the grandfather and Werner von Braun, a man whom he was missioned to dispose of (yes!) in that long-ago, muddy chase across Germany in World War Two, but never mind. It makes a great story.

Moonglow is pure Chabon magic, no matter what you call it.

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“Maud’s Line”: A Terrifying, Heart-Tugging Tale of A Hard-Scrabble Life

Mauds"s Line Pbk CoverEastern Oklahoma in the 1920s, in an area inhabited mostly by Cherokees. This is the setting for Margaret Verble’s remarkable, heart-breaking yet ultimately life-affirming first novel, Maud’s Line.

Why did this book’s title grab me so sharply? First, because I was born in a town called Maud, Oklahoma. My interest was piqued further when I learned that Verble, like me, was also born in Oklahoma, and that she, like me–and, more importantly, like her major character–has Cherokee blood in her veins. Her book’s title, however, does not refer to a town, but to her compelling principal character, eighteen year old Maud Vail, and to the small allotment of land that ultimately falls to her.

Though the territorial reach of the novel is measured in square miles, it still feels sprawling, though the sprawl is a much of family as it is of place. Counting all the relatives, it’s a big family. While Maud is a Cherokee, she has Choctaw as well as Creek family sprinkled throughout “the bottoms,” as it’s called.  Clearly, it’s a land where family loyalty counts.

Wherever you go in this bottom-land, you get there by walking, or on horseback, or on mule back, or by wagon. Only the rich have motorcars.

Fortunately, most of Maud’s relatives live within walking distance of the house where she and her father, Mustard, and her brother, Lovely, live. (If you’re a really good walker, that is.) Mustard, the father, is hard-drinking, roughhousing, and a rogue. Lovely, though four years older than Maud, is a sensitive man-boy who seems barely half-there. Bad things happen to Lovely. There’s also Uncle Blue and Uncle Early. Aunt Viola. Aunt Lucy. Auntie Nan.

But mostly, endearingly, enduringly, there’s Maud, a highly strung, intelligent, capable, gun-toting eighteen-year old with an on-the-brink sexuality who loves to read. She’s pretty, and sought-after by the local boys, but when an educated peddler (an ex-teacher) in a blue covered wagon enters the territory, with books among his items for sale, and a willingness to discuss and recommend them, Maud falls hard. Still, life on the Line is more than swooning over a white peddler. There’s lots going on. First there’s the cow whose spine is hideously slashed in two by evil-minded neighbors, the Mounts. There’s the dead, bloody dog the Mounts leave on the kitchen table when no one is at the house. There’s the discovery of a horrible scene of carnage at the Mounts’ cabin, and Maud’s anxiety over who in her family might be responsible. How does her fascination with this handsome stranger, not to mention the requirements of developing a serious relationship, compete with the onslaught of near-catastrophic events in her family? So she wrestles fretfully with how much she can tell him–the man she has come to love so compellingly. And all the while this feuding and mystery is treated by her relatives–however deeply they mark Maud–as more or less just the way things are “in the bottoms.” The bottom-land is full of characters and full of character, and the book is remarkable both for its description of the geographical and emotional landscape as it is for its rendering of these people’s terse, vernacular dialogue. Verble has a great ear.

So: loyalty is important; family is everything. How does a romance compete with this? When, toward the end of the book, her father decides to “take to the hills” in hopes of hooking up with the outlaw Pretty Boy Floyd (after his suspected role in the murder of those evil and troublesome neighbors), Maud seems the only one among all the relatives who is deeply bothered.

There’s an old-fashioned feel to Verble’s book–the emphasis on family, perhaps, and the insistence on a meticulous painting of the landscape–which caused one reviewer to evoke Willa Cather. I confess this wealth of description put me off at first, but I eventually came to appreciate it because it made me feel embedded. I was there. There on Maud’s walks into “the wild,” always carrying her rifle, in case of snakes. There when she lavished care on her brother, Lovely, brought low by a rabid dog bite or a descent into madness. There when, hungering after the truth, she parted the bushes to spy on the Mounts, those malicious neighbors, and encountered a scene of horror. There wherever she walked, and walked, and walked, through a sometimes parched and sometimes flooded land. Verble paints the land in such detail that the reader walks through it with her.

But more there’s more. Despite the fact that I’m both male and many years older than Verble’s character, I identified strongly with this young woman, including the internal workings of her body as she becomes pregnant. I’ll never forget Maud Vail.

Verble’s book was published last year, and nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.Share this post:

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“Exceptional, original, deftly crafted from beginning to end, “Problems of Translation: or Charlie’s Comic, Terrifying, Romantic, Loopy Round-the-World Journey in Search of Linguistic Happiness” is an inherently fascinating, unique, funny, and compelling read that is very highly recommended, especially for community and academic library Literary Fiction collections.”

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