Nate in Venice by Richard Russo

In the novella Nate in Venice, former English professor Nate, now in his 60s, is persuaded to take a tour of Italy by his semi-estranged brother Julian. First stop Venice where he joins the Biennale tour group “most of whom, like Nate, hail from central Massachusetts.” We know, almost immediately, that something has gone wrong in Nate’s life when we learn that he worries “his social skills may have atrophied after so many months of self-imposed solitude.” If the tour is supposed to help with Nate’s depression, it’s not working. The tour group members are a sorry lot, and “a few appear fit enough, but others strike him as medical emergencies waiting to happen.” One couple is “extremely elderly” and very fragile while others have to stop and rest every few feet and appear to be “heart-attack candidates.” But things begin to look promising when Nate spies another member of the tour, Rene, an attractive older woman who has an air of fragility and anxiety. Interesting that Nate’s drawn to a woman who’s so obviously damaged while he overlooks the much more confident Evelyn:

The general impression she conveys is of a woman who once upon a time cared about how she presented herself to men but work up one morning, said fuck it, and was immediately happier.

Nate, a lifelong bachelor, isn’t smooth with women, so it’s not too surprising that Nate’s older brother, salesman Julian swoops in and takes over Rene. This move, probably inspired by deeply-rooted sibling rivalry, is a repeat of history as far as these two brothers are concerned. While Julian’s invitation to Nate seems both unusual and unexpected, the minute the two brothers meet at the airport, all their troubled history floats to the surface:

Amazing, Nate thought. Thirty seconds into their first face-to-face conversation in years, and he already wanted to strangle the man.

There are many clues about trouble in Nate’s recent past along with hints that there’s some disgrace connected to his retirement. Accompanying this is Nate’s fundamental fear and preoccupying thought that he took the wrong path in life and that he should never have been a professor in the first place.

Say this for Julian, a career salesman: he’s lived the life he meant to live. He’s sold cars, time shares, stocks, television advertising. Indeed, people are always impressed by the wide range of things Julian has sold, but as he always explains, selling is selling. It’s all about knowing people better than they know themselves. Figure out who they are and that they really want and they’re yours. Julian always makes a fist when he says this, as if inviting people to imagine themselves in his grasp. Knowledge is power, he maintains (though apparently not the kind of knowledge that leads one to a Ph.D. in English). Julian claims his head is full of the kind of algorithms Google would pay millions for. In Nate’s opinion, it isn’t just algorithms Julian’s full of. And he disagrees that his brother can sell anything. He’s known Julian a long time, and he’s only ever sold one thing: Julian.

Nate is a self-confessed “career bachelor,” but he’s happy to admit that “his true love has always been Jane Austen.” There’s a back story on both of those admissions, and that back story leaks out gradually over the course of the novella as the scandal concerning Nate’s career emerges.

This novella, one of those kindle singles, is a story of life’s disappointments, and it offers a Richard Russo short read in about 90 minutes. While it’s not as satisfying as his novels, Nate in Venice offers a sample of the author’s style. Some sharp observations of academic life emerge in these pages, but this is not Straight Man— one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Nate is a bit of a depressive hence the medication he takes, and while many of us would consider Nate’s life successful, he still isn’t convinced that he took the correct career path, and it’s as though his decision to stick with academia somehow left part of Nate behind. It’s of those the road-not-taken scenarios. Most of us don’t end up with the sort of life we imagined in our youth, but in Nate’s case, there’s an emptiness and a general lack of involvement as he failed to engage in his own choices.

As a main character, Nate is problematic: mired in depression, he’s not very appealing, and then there’s his almost complete disengagement from his own life–until the one moment he reached out…. The ending seemed a little too arranged–although at the same time, questions about Julian remain unresolved.

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13 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Russo, Richard

13 responses to “Nate in Venice by Richard Russo

  1. I read this one last year and still haven’t reviewed it, but you remind me I should. I really liked it. It was my first Russo and I thought the character portraits which you capture here were well done and convincing. I cared what happened and I thought some of the payoff with respect to issues such as the difference between Nate and Julian as to whether calls had been made or not was nicely done (was that the bit you thought too arranged? Hard to discuss without spoilers).

    Is Straight Man your favourite by him? I did think this a good introduction, based on it I’d be interested in reading more.

  2. Oh, this sounds terrific. A nice little amouse-bouche and a good introduction to an author I’m not familiar with. It sounds as though you rate this writer’s work.

  3. Just looked for “Straight Man” in my library catalogue and came up with “Sex Tips for Straight Women From a Gay Man.” I’ve been wanting to read it since you first mentioned it, and this review whets my appetite.

  4. The characters as you describe them sound very interesting. I do like reading about depressed and troubled people.

    I love the line about Jane Austen.

  5. I does sound like a great introduction to his work and you really pique my curiosity. Whatevere happened in the past, I wonder?
    “Medical emergencies about to happen” – so funny. You can really picture the lot.
    I should read Straigth Man which I’ve owned for at least three years now.

  6. I’m fond of Russo and this sounds just like him. Are there a lot of descriptions of the city?

    “Medical emergencies about to happen” He’s not so far off the mark.
    My parents went on a tour like this and one of the tourists had Alzheimer. Her children put her on that tour to get rid of her for two weeks, counting on the kindness of the other participants to her back in one piece. And indeed, the group took care of her, making sure she didn’t get lost.
    Or how in one anecdote you can have the worst and the best of human behaviour.

    • That’s awful. I can understand the family wanting a break, but that’s terrible. Good anecdote though.

      No there aren’t a lot of descriptions. He gets lost and wanders around a bit.

  7. “The Whore’s Child” by Russo, a short story collection, is very good. The title story is absolutely fantastic, and is ironic on a dizzying number of levels.

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