It seems remarkable that Richard Russo, who won this year's Pulitzer Prize for his novel Empire Falls, has never before published a collection of short stories. But The Whore's Child and Other Stories is indeed his first.

While Russo has built his reputation as a chronicler of blue-collar, small-town America, the seven diverse stories in this collection cover a lot more ground, both socioeconomically and geographically. Many concern middle-aged men, although a contemplative 10-year-old boy and an aging Belgian nun are at the center of two of the most memorable tales. The nun is Sister Ursula, a self-dubbed whore's child who joins a college fiction workshop and tries to make sense of some puzzling questions from childhood through her feverishly wrought memoir. The boy in The Mysteries of Linwood Hart drifts though a summer baseball season, philosophically ascribing desires to inanimate objects while failing to comprehend the real, if elusive, complexities of the adult world.

In an evocative story of childhood, Joy Ride, a boy and his mother hit the road in the family Ford. Mom wants to escape Maine and marriage, but as they head west to California things get ugly somewhere around Tucumcari. The mother's surrender to the inevitable becomes clouded in denial 20 years later, telling us more about the corrective power of memory than about the act of rebellion itself.

A fatalism permeates Russo's stories, though it is never a despair-laden fatalism. Most often, his characters are just trying to make some sense of the peculiar hand that fate has dealt them. So, while a father who learns that his daughter's husband has hit her dutifully assumes his fatherly role, he does so a bit reluctantly, aware of his own imperfections. A writer who finally reaps financial benefits from his talent must temper his success with guilt when he considers the chronic insolvency of an equally talented friend.

There is much humor in Russo's stories, sometimes cynical, sometimes wistful. It nudges the stories along and elevates his characters and his readers over emotional hurdles that might seem insurmountable in a lesser writer's hands. The many fans of Russo's novels will find much to admire in his short fiction, as well.

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