Friday, July 22, 2011

Review: Empire Falls, by Richard Russo

I first learned of Richard Russo’s work back when I living in Korea. At the school where I taught, his novel Nobody’s Fool got passed around among the teachers faster than the flu. I remember it being a hugely funny, expansive novel full of richly drawn characters and an intricate plot – something reminiscent of the best of John Irving. The consensus seemed to be that Empire Falls was an even better book, but I’ve only now gotten around to reading it.

Empire Falls is certainly more expansive. Its central character is Miles Roby, a 42-year-old man who runs the Empire Grill in his small hometown in Maine, having turned his back on his education and a promising future 20 years earlier. Life has grown increasingly tough for Miles in the intervening decades: his wife Janine has recently left him for a much more virile man; his daughter Tick may be suffering from anorexia; his small town of Empire Falls is rapidly dying as all of the jobs move south; and Miles, forever gentle to the point of being spineless, is still beholden to the obscenely wealthy old woman who owns the diner where he works and most of the rest of the town, Mrs. Francine Whiting, whose family history is intricately tangled up with Miles’s own.

Russo is a big proponent of not only omniscient narration but also of the omniscient author: he has, like Irving, no qualms about playing God with his characters and with the entire world he creates for them. A lot of readers may find this old fashioned, but it can be a refreshing change of pace if you’ve been reading a lot of narrowly focused, minimalist fiction recently. Empire Falls is, in nearly every paragraph, a novel about the American way of life – how capitalism and the pursuit of personal success can bleed into every other crevice of existence: your family, your religion, your self image, your very humanity. Russo uses a wide canvas to paint his themes of self reliance vs. co-dependence. Empire Falls is long and tangential, regularly skirting off to provide lengthy backgrounds for secondary characters or descriptions of the history of Empire Falls itself. It’s an enriching experience to let yourself get carried off by the depths of Russo’s vision and to immerse yourself in the world he has created. It will feel infinitely real and entirely plausible.

Still, there are a number of things that undermine this book. Chief among them would be some fairly lazy, clichéd writing that Russo allows to seep throughout the text. I’ve spotted lines like “Mrs. Whiting also radiated … a sexuality that was alive and ticking,” (shouldn’t it be alive and kicking?), or “…young Zack, another apple that hadn’t fallen far from the tree …” or the cringeworthy “… his head and body aches had returned with a vengeance …” These clichés are signs of an author on autopilot, a writer too preoccupied with the big picture to concern himself with the importance of making every line, every sentence fresh and original.

The other issue I had with Empire Falls is how many of the secondary characters, while richly drawn, often lack multidimensional motivations. In short, some of them are just plain evil. Miles’s father Max is a near perfect portrait of a mooch; yet he’s missing even the slightest hint of a redeeming quality. Miles’s “soon-to-be ex-wife” Janine is flawless in her vanity and self-centredness, never truly cluing in to how her ambitions are damaging those around her, and her comeuppance near the novel’s end is never in doubt. And Mrs. Whiting is like the embodiment of pure evil, to the point where we never gain access to any modicum of her humanness.

But despite these flaws, Empire Falls redeems itself in the end. As Miles finally shakes off the yoke of his weaknesses and takes action to save his daughter from an explosive tragedy at her school, Russo shows himself to be in full command of his grand vision. The novel’s multitudinous loose ends tie up in satisfying ways without coming off as contrived. You walk away from Empire Falls feeling like the author has given you a portal into an entire world, one that had a grand design behind it the entire time.

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