The Risk Pool by Richard Russo

Published: 1986

Genre: fiction

Length: 479 pages

Setting: Mohawk, a fictional town in the Mohawk River Valley of NY, 1950s-1980s

Interest: It was recommended to me after I read Empire Falls by the author and enjoyed it.

Summary: We follow the life of Ned Hall. His parents separated after his father from back from fighting in Germany. The only interaction he had with his father, Sam, was when Sam would drive by the house to harass his mother. Of course, there was that one time Sam picked him up from school and took him on a two-day fishing trip, unbeknownst to his mother, but that hardly counts. At some point, though, his mother develops a mental illness and Ned is off to live with his father as a young teen. His father is an alcoholic and a gambler and pretty much raises Ned among his drinking, poker-playing buddies. The semi-respectable relationship Sam had was with Eileen, a local waitress, although he was extremely hostile to Eileen’s son. Ned had dreams of getting out of Mohawk and becoming rich enough to live in the big white house that sat like a jewel on the hill. He did leave for college, but Mohawk would draw him back fairly regularly, at least until his father died.

Final thoughts: Even though this is your typical fiction book where nothing special other than life happens, I really enjoyed it. The working class voice of Sam and his friends seemed authentic, and I could hear Ned’s desire to be as cool as his father. Sure, Sam had problems (shall we count them?), but even so, Ned looked up to his father. Watching Sam spiral into cancer and start to physically break down was as depressing as if it were my own father. Interestingly enough, when Ned’s mother also broke down mentally, I didn’t feel same despair in Ned. It could have been because of the age Ned was when this happened (teenagers can be pretty oblivious to anything outside of themselves) or just their relationship was different.

Title comes from: At several times in the book, Sam talked about what risk pool for car insurance he was in. It was always the highest one, because he was a terrible driver and just didn’t care to follow rules he thought were stupid.

Reading challenges fulfilled: #26 in my Maybe 100 This Year Challenge

If you’re interested in purchasing the book, you can click on the cover image to follow an Amazon affiliate link to the book and thanks for supporting my blog!

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