Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Book Review: Empire Falls

Empire Falls, by Richard Russo, took me by surprise. It was not just a well-told story, but a rich, layered treat, like an English trifle for the mind. It's about a mill town without a mill, struggling to survive and dependent on the stingy favors of a rich widow who owns most everything worth owning.

Critics (I read a bunch of one-star reviews on Amazon) suggest that the plot is slow-moving, lacking real action. One reviewer objected that "the hero is weak" and "the climax reveals no victory."
Well, in some ways, they're right: this is definitely not the book you should take off the shelf if you're looking for Ludlumesque action and intrique, or a Tom Clancy-type hero that starts out like a normal guy but ends up diving out of the path of speeding bullets and rescuing the president from Basque terrorists.

The protagonist, Miles Roby, is weak, in the same way that many of us are weak: he lets life happen to him, rather than making difficult choices that might take his life in a more fulfilling direction. He stays in a dead-end job that can't even be classified as a career: he manages the Empire Grill, but not well; he's loyal to his wife, but does not satisfy her; and he loves his daughter, but feels inadequate as a parent. (Don't we all.)

Why doesn't he leave the Empire Grill, and open his own restaurant? Why doesn't he move away from Empire Falls and build a more satisfying life in another town? Why does he allow himself to feel so trapped?! Get some therapy, man!

Ahem. Sorry about that. Anyway, apparently this is not an uncommon fate for the common man. Newsweek just published a story, Sucker or Saint: How We Rationalize Being Wimpy, about how professionals who "have failed to act as free thinkers" rationalize their behavior and shore up their self-esteem.

One thing I couldn't figure out was what he ever saw in his ex-wife Janine. Perhaps this character represents a weakness in Russo's writing--is she too one-sided to be believable? Or are there real people just like her?

She's shallow, selfish and narcissistic. She might be smart, but she's too self-involved and superficial to allow for any kind of deeper awareness or insight. The closest she gets to awareness is the unarticulated feeling she gets when she skirts the notion that there's something about Miles that she might miss when their divorce is finalized. Are there people so dumb that they'll give up on a kind, smart, hardworking guy just because [underage readers: avert your eyes!] he can't find her g-spot? And shouldn't she take some responsibility for that? All she has to say is, up a little, over, that's good! Am I right?

Anyway, I totally feel for Miles. I think his condition is the human condition: we all wonder, at times, if we've settled. We all know for a solid fact that we could do more, and be more, if only. Or maybe that's just me. Russo writes Miles--and the extensive cast of secondary characters as well--with compassion and gentle realism. Kind of like he's one of us, and he gets it, that people like Miles--and me--aren't necessarily sure that we've embarked on the most fulfilling or self-actualizing life course--but we're doing the best we can, and we're trying to take care of the things that are the most important in the long run: our kids, our family members, our souls.

So back to the book. There's action, all right--but not until toward the end. It's surprising, scary, and, unfortunately, familiar. The action in the rest of the book, however, is primarily internal. Russo's style is patient, poignant, and humorous; his story-telling reveals sympathetic, believable characters with history and depth. Each one adds a different flavor to the Empire Falls pot: suspense, lust, mystery, redemption, tenderness, menace, and hope.

My favorite is Tick, Miles' and Janine's teen daughter, who's philosophical, clever, and confused. She's literally and figuratively weighed down, bent over under the weight of her backpack and the burdens of her parents' divorce, high school, a bully ex-boyfriend, and an icky new stepfather. Russo apparently clearly remembers the painful internal conflicts of high school existence, and vivifies Tick's character with true-to-life deportment and dialogue.

Anyway, I loved it. I loved the whole thing. From the opening chapter, it drew me in. It made me want to know more about the town and the people and what was going to happen to them. Russo uses language in a Dickensian way (the first sentence of first paragraph, page two, chapter one was 72 words long!), but it doesn't put you off--it's conversational and yet beautiful at the the same time.
I'd love to know what you thought of it, or what you think when you read it.


Anonymous said...

Hey E, didn't read the book but watched its very good 2 part mini series a couple years ago on HBO with Paul Newman, Helen Hunt, Robin Wright Penn, the Capote guy (his name is escaping me), Aidan Quinn and Ed Harris. You can probably find it on DVD.

Anonymous said...

Hey E, didn't read the book but watched its very good 2 part mini series a couple years ago on HBO with Paul Newman, Helen Hunt, Robin Wright Penn, the Capote guy (his name is escaping me), Aidan Quinn and Ed Harris. You can probably find it on DVD.

E. Peevie said...

Hi Lilia, Thanks for the tip. I will definitely Netflix it, partly because the book was so good, and partly because I LOVE all those actors.

E. P.