Everybody’s Fool, and capital punishment

My humanist group had an outing to the wonderful Miss Lodema’s Tea Room, in Sharon Springs. I recognized it as “North Bath,” the (barely) fictionalized town in Richard Russo’s novel, Nobody’s Fool, which I’d just read. So then I read the sequel, Everybody’s Fool.

I previously reviewed Russo’s memoir, Elsewhere — a more accurate title would have been Momma’s Boy.

Nobody’s Fool was Donald “Sully” Sullivan, a decent everyman who does some foolish things. He reappears in the sequel, but the title character is Douglas Raymer, North Bath’s police chief. His wife died a year before, falling down stairs en route to leaving him for her lover. A “MacGuffin” in the book is a garage door opener Raymer finds, believing it will reveal that lover’s identity. (Some big spoilers ahead.)

This combines with an elaborate story about Raymer injuring his hand and obsessively scratching at the itchy wound — with the garage door opener becoming the perfect hand-scratcher. With a predictable denouement in someone’s garage. But by then, by process of elimination, the reader could already guess who that unmasked adulterer is.

All this may seem hokey. But this novel doesn’t aspire to be Crime and Punishment, it’s more like a comic book, and reasonably succeeds as such. Indeed, despite the obviously contrived action, it did succeed in engaging my emotions. I was even saying to myself, why is my heart pounding in response to this?

But speaking of crime and punishment, what I really want to discuss is the role in the book of the death penalty.

My wife and I watch some detective/crime shows. Now, the folks who write and produce them, and most novelists too, are presumably good intellectual liberals morally opposed to capital punishment. Yet normal humans are biologically programmed to crave justice and punishment for crimes. This plays out in their shows and books.

I’ve written about this before, in connection with a sci-fi novel: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2013/10/13/why-liberal-intellectuals-love-the-death-penalty/  Its author entered a comment saying he really does favors capital punishment!

While watching those mystery shows, my wife and I will debate whether capital punishment is coming: whether the murderer will be merely apprehended, or will die. The rule seems to be that run-of-the-mill baddies get caught while particularly heinous ones get killed.

Roy is a character in both Russo’s Fool novels, looming larger in the second. At first he seemed just a pathetic dumb loser. But gradually he’s revealed as a really nasty piece of work, a sociopath. And the reader’s thirst for punishment grows.

However, Roy hasn’t actually killed anyone. Yet. And capital punishment can be meted out only to killers. Then Roy spitefully almost kills his mother-in-law (a good person, who’d been much nicer to him than he deserved). She survives only because Sully shows up to whack Roy with a skillet. One aches for a second whack to finish the job, but Roy too survives and manages to slink away before the police arrive.

He’s been shacked up with an overweight sad sack, Cora, only because he’s got nothing else. She drives the getaway car. Roy treats her horribly and she takes it. You want him dead. But remember the rule: killers only.

Then he whacks Cora. Apparently only aiming to knock her out while he absconds with her car. But it seems Cora is dead. At least we’re not told otherwise in the remaining pages.

That sealed Roy’s fate, I felt sure. And my confidence was vindicated.

Meantime, though, Russo actually violates the rule of capital punishment for killers only. Well, technically. Another bad guy was in a hit-and-run, and tries to hide the body, but the victim actually recovers. There’s a long set-up to culminate in cosmic justice for this villain, by snakebite. Even though he didn’t totally kill anyone (that we know of); but I guess an author has the freedom to make any character die, if he wants.

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