The Risk Pool (1986)

by Richard Russo

Sam Hall is not what most people would consider responsible. Indeed, his driving habits put him at the bottom of the insurance risk pool. He does road work when it’s available and otherwise boozes, gambles, shoots pool, and hangs out with derelict cronies in the grim upstate New York town of Mohawk. When his estranged wife suffers a nervous breakdown, Sam takes in their 12-year-old son, Ned. Looking back at the “dangerous man” whose run-down apartment he shared for two years, Ned, the first-person narrator of The Risk Pool, says, “Living under Sam Hall’s roof, I had become a thief and a liar. I’d made dangerous friends and knew too damn much of the world for my own good. “

So, when his mother was able to reclaim him — though not adequately nurture him — Ned says he was glad to put his father behind him. Father and son don’t see each other again for a decade, but Ned isn’t out from under what he called Sam’s “dubious spell.”

Sam’s charm pulls in the reader, too. While we never excuse him, we may come to like him, and the father-son bond is surprisingly moving at the end of the book. Russo ends on a hopeful note for Ned. He has managed to escape Mohawk and a hustler’s life. He also becomes a father for the first time, and the odds seem good that he won’t repeat Sam’s parenting example.

Too irreverent to be sentimental and too funny to be bleak, The Risk Pool is an entertaining read despite the sad lives of its characters.


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