Posted by: zhiv | February 2, 2010

Empire Falls, Richard Russo

I was quite impressed by this book. Not that I did a better job than I have before in my ongoing stumble through Russo’s work. In this case I read the first 150 pages or so at the beginning of the month, right after I finished Straight Man, and then got distracted and read some other stuff and kept pushing it aside. It’s such an annoying way to read a book, as you only half-remember a lot of stuff from the first sessions, and things keep coming back to you along the way, and you know there’s other stuff that you’ve forgotten completely. I have to say, however, when I got sick on Thursday night with a quick flu bug, aching and shivering and then sweating through a long night, a part of me was happy that I would be able to lie around doing nothing and that I had such an excellent book to read and finish. Why is it that somehow I seem to keep reading Russo’s novels as if I were a character in a Russo novel? And isn’t this latest bout an example of taking infectious prose just a bit too far?

It’s a bit tricky–and then some–to try to say anything about a book that won the Pulitzer nine years ago that you’re just getting around to belatedly. “Hey there! Good book! But everybody already knew that! Guess I’ll get on the internet now and see what the smart people had to say about it!” The pub date of 2001 is kind of towards the end of the pre-blogging era too, so most of the stuff would be from more traditional reviews, although it’d be interesting to see other people, like myself, getting around to it. One of the most intriguing aspects of the novel, reading it almost a decade later, is viewing it as an artifact of its specific moment in time.

And once again I’ll make a virtue out my lame way of reading the book. Empire Falls is a bit old-fashioned and sprawling, with a rich and full cast of characters, and it jumps back and forth in time. Perhaps its major accomplishment–cheating ahead to the place-in-time argument a little–is as a fin-de-siecle novel, a portrait of the fall of the American Empire, and as such it’s something of crowning work of Russo’s rust belt oeuvre. It manages to depict the entire century of life in the riverside mill town of Empire Falls, with broad strokes about the early decades in the background, a fuzzy impressionism in the middle, and carefully focused realistic detail in the foreground. It contains the population of a once-thriving American community, if not multitudes, and the scope of time and character across the canvas of 100 years is impressive.

Empire Falls even has the art and painting metaphor I’m using here, for instance, and it’s one that’s layered on expertly across the generations. Max Roby, Russo’s familiar scapegrace aging father, is a housepainter who paints windows shut, and Tick Roby, the quietly beautiful, troubled and talented teen suffering through adolescence and her parents’ divorce in a dying town, lives primarily in her art class, which is where the story’s harrowing climax takes place. But I was rationalizing my approach by saying that the generous sprawl of this novel requires extensive set-up in the part I read first–prep work, like the scraping the hero Miles Roby does to the church he himself is painting, just as matters escalate–, while the last two-thirds are focused and intense and decisive, ultimately. I feel a bit as if I made it to the highest point of the roller coaster in my first stint, which had its own rewarding views and twists and turns, and then, when I was ready I guess, knocked down by a quick flu bug and properly chastened and anointed, I was really able to enjoy the ride to the finish.

It all may be Russo’s method, picking a guy caught in the middle in a middling town, but he does it exceedingly well here. I was struck by a number of passages of keen, extraordinary insight as the story careened along in its latter stages, striking stuff, all sorts of things I would have marked and noted if I was any sort of responsible reader. At the same time the richness and fullness of a number of characters comes to the fore, rounded, real people that any writer would feel lucky to create. And the story speeds towards that climax, towards revelation and the reconciliation I previously noted as Russo’s ritual stance.

It’s reconciliation versus redemption in Russo, perhaps, to make a fine distinction. The Catholic church of his youth, which Miles is trying to paint (afraid of heights, he’s unable to climb the steeple; his father makes fun of him for this), closes down at the end and is being turned into condos. His mother Grace, whose life Miles is struggling throughout the nove to understand, is long dead when the story begins. There’s no redemption without grace, right? Miles discovers that Grace was an important part of Charlie Mayne/C.B. Whiting’s life, but did C.B find redemption through her, which came in the form of knowing when to put a gun to his head? Problematic. So what is there? Reconciliation, evolution, change, understanding, stuff like that. Again, let the smart people work it out, take notes, unpack the images and layers and themes and have fun doing it. This novel is a significant, major accomplishment, with all sorts of things going on, and it’s the product of mind-breaking hard imaginative work, even though it seems easy-going for such a long time, just a quiet small town shuffle. I like to look at post-war writers like Richard Yates and Mary McCarthy and right now John Williams and see how their careers are taking shape in unexpected ways thirty years later, and the case of a writer like Russo, building a body of work in the last two decades of the century and still going strong, presents an intriguing glimpse of the next epoch, one that is sadly put into perspective by the death and silencing of a protean writer and younger contemporary like David Foster Wallace. Thirty years from now some of Russo’s books will remain bouyant, floating easily up on the surface, while others will have sunk down a bit below easy recognition. If I was reading then the way I do now (and I won’t be), plucking out two or three or four of an author’s best books as a representative sample, it seems like Russo will have a great, solid core group, and Empire Falls will be in the mix, no doubt helped by that shiny Pulitzer on the cover. There’s a lot to analyse and look at in this novel, all sorts of different things going on, and it will reward exacting study and interpretation quite richly. I’ve mentioned before how I want to read some future grad student’s “Richard” dissertation, studying the influence of Yates on Russo, Ford, and Price, and Russo lays in a tidy little reference to Yates near the end of Empire Falls. The Knox River cuts through the town, which doesn’t connect until pg. 460, when we learn that Jimmy Minty has troubles because he stole a laser printer from Knox Computers. It’s not exactly Knox Business Machines, where Frank Wheeler works in Revolutionary Road, but it’s close enough. But a tiny Yates homage, and even a dissertation marking influences, is small beer in the literary wealth created here by Russo, and in the rest of his works. I’m having my own fun reading (and stumbling) backwards through Russo with a modestly inebriated Yatesian lean, but it’s just a great place to hang out and reflect, and readers and academics will be doing so for a long time.

Continuing with time and place, and the fin-de-siecle thing: as I mentioned, Russo does a fantastic job of creating a portrait of the century, but there’s more to be said on that subject, now that we have the pesky, actually rather nasty, decade of the aughts behind us. Empire Falls builds and becomes captivating and compelling as it races towards the end, and it doesn’t start out as a book that seems like its going to have such a strong climax. That’s an important part of its power and strength. And what it is, as it turns out, is a Columbine book. Russo has always had an idea of the damage inherited by the Viet Nam generation from the traumatized Depression-WW2 “greatest” generation (very Yatesy stuff), but in Empire Falls he’s responding to the stunning violence of the lost boys in the next round, our children, which was displayed so shockingly in Colorado on 4-20-99. The thing that’s so strange now is how putting that social slide under the microscope was dwarfed by the awe of 9/11 such a short time later. Russo’s sprawling tale resolves itself with Miles’s daughter slashing out with an X-acto knife at a zombie (of sorts) teenage killer, as one of Russo’s unassuming good guys, the school principal, leaps in front of her to take the bullet, and it’s a perfectly calibrated climax in a world where something like Columbine can occur. Russo also includes, soon after, a deluge that wipes the town clean and rids it of its angry, bitter and controlling malevolent spirit, washing her floating corpse over the dam below town. All of it works as an appropriate and carefully measured elegy for the end of the American Century, but it doesn’t suggest how quickly things would change and grow much darker, in such shocking and surprising ways, what we know now in 2010. Nor should it, of course.

And there’s another thing. Miles Roby is a good guy, beleaguered and clueless, trying to figure things out, always likeable for the most part, doing the best he can with a lot on his plate. It seems like he shouldn’t be so sad and things shouldn’t be so tough, but that happens to be the way the stars have aligned. The goal is for him to be decisive and start worrying about himself, to get out from under the darker side of his inheritance from the previous generation. Just because his father doesn’t understand the boundaries of healthy self-interest doesn’t mean Miles shouldn’t be able to figure them out. It all works out, more or less, and Miles is ready to begin a new life in the new century, right at the middle of his journey. But my question is, has there ever been a fully rounded, mature and adult American hero, a regular guy who’s not obviously a loser, who has gotten laid less in his rather substantial lifetime than Miles Roby? The topic emerges because Miles’s ex-wife, Janine, their divorce going through at the beginning of the book, makes it a point to say that her sex life with Miles was completely unsatisfactory and virtually non-existent. We celebrate this, to a certain degree, because Miles and Janine are so ill-matched. The story teases us with the idea that everything is leading to Miles figuring things out with his sexy stoner waitress and 25-year crush Charlene, who is fun and aging gracefully enough. They’ve been in close proximity for years and now they’re both available, and it’s just too easy and obvious for it to happen, or at least in Miles’s world it is. He always has a couple more things to work out first, and Charlene isn’t the kind of girl who’s going to wait around. In the end, Miles is going to have to move on. The nature of Miles’s romantic world is bittersweet at best, and Charlene is fated to remain just out of reach. It’s probably a Catholic thing. She steers herself into the single healthy arm of Miles’s less-complicated, more forthright, maturing younger brother David, and this seems appropriate, helping the ending achieve its balance. But Miles still doesn’t get laid. We figure he’s going to, he’s young enough, but that’s not the story that’s being told here.

What he does end up with, however, in a better and more touching way, is the deepest of renewed bonds with his teenage daughter. And of course there’s a lot to be said for that. I still remember, as clear as a bell, the pre-dawn moment in those bygone days of the early 90’s, my pregnant wife sleeping by my side, when the Northridge earthquake rumbled our way, with my 3-year-old daughter sleeping in her room about 40 feet away. If you live in California you learn to recognize that you hear earthquakes first, before the shaking starts, and they sound like a train coming into a station. On that morning, within a single long second, in an uncanny way I turned into an action hero for the only time in my life. Leaping out of bed is just a figure of speech until you actually do it, and running down a short rolling hallway and banging off the walls is a neat trick too, a lot like the phoney version at an amusement park, but real. I reached her just as she was waking up, terrified and confused, and laid on top of her as a shield and we rode the rest of the quake out together. She was safe. The best part of all this was that I didn’t think. I was sound asleep one moment and five seconds later I was protecting my little daughter at all costs. Otto Meyer Jr., a tertiary character in Empire Falls, performs a sudden heroic action when he leaps in front of Tick and takes her bullet. Random heroism, it seems, will crop up from time to time even in our own twisted, dazed and confused, not-so-great generation. Miles has run his gauntlet and is in the hospital himself, beaten and bloodied, when he hears that his daughter has come under fire. Russo does a superb job of fulfilling his hero’s promise here. He doesn’t think, never hesitates for an instant, his own injuries and pain and concerns all disappear as he finds his daughter, picks her up in his arms, and takes her away to safety, succor and solace. There’s no question: there’s at least one thing in his world that he cares about unconditionally, that he doesn’t have to think twice about, that he’s going to carry safely over into the new century one way or another, by any means necessary. That’s his daughter. I can relate.

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