Richard Russo writes some of the best smart-asses in recent literary history. They are flirtatious and witty, sarcastic and cynical. Just like real people, his characters, especially Sully in The Risk Pool, sometimes seem surprised and pleased by their own quick wit.

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Straight Man, Russo's funniest book, was published 10 years ago. "Straight Man was the gift," Russo says by phone. "Writing it was just a gas. I may as well have been taking dictation." But he points out that even that book has its dark places: "A lot of people think it's a novel about academia, but it's really about a middle-aged man having a meltdown." It's just a very funny meltdown, involving duck-related terrorism and some ill-advised peach-pit stains.

This month marks the paperback release of Russo's least funny novel, Bridge of Sighs. Russo seems perplexed by the darkness of his own book: "It was a cesarean birth, a struggle from the very beginning. I think of it the way I think of Our Mutual Friend, or Bleak House, a book about despair." When asked if he thinks this is where his work is going, he says: "I hope not. I don't want to go through that again."

As a child and teenager, Russo was a voracious reader of science fiction and mystery paperbacks. "There's a wise-ass element to a lot of characters in the genres," he says, "and I used to love the smart-asses who inhabited genre fiction." When writers are trying to sell the fantastic plots and crazy ideas of pulpy genre fiction, it's wise to have at least one character who can smirk at the audience and say "Can you believe this shit?" It somehow makes the unbelievable a little more real. Much of the time, literary fiction can't withstand that kind of interior criticism: One character's raised eyebrow could destroy an entire novel.

Part of the reason Russo's characters are pithy is because they're the kind of people who don't normally populate literary fiction. "Class," he says, "is always of primary importance in my books." He writes about waitresses and bartenders and laid-off mill workers, and rather than inflating them to Steinbeck-level heroism, he gives them the shrewd sense of humor that blue-collar people actually use to get through the day. Despite claiming that he doesn't pay any mind to negative reviews, Russo remembers one particular criticism of the movie version of Nobody's Fool, in which Gene Siskel claimed that the working class characters weren't educated enough to be this witty. Russo becomes audibly agitated at that suggestion, claiming that Siskel wasn't paying attention to real people: "Of course they're witty," Russo says, "That's how they survive."

Richard Russo reads Wed Sept 17, Benaroya Hall, 7:30 pm, $10–$50.