Sunday, August 17, 2003


Yeah, yeah, yeah, my vacation was a month ago, and whatever happened to the second book that I read? While Moneyball was a flawed but successful look at how a Major League Baseball team can succeed on a minor league budget, what did I think about Empire Falls, the novel I took in? Dozens of e-mails have demanded the answers to these questions, and I'm happy to report in.

Richard Russo's Pulitzer Prize-winner is an atypically accessible work of literary fiction. As fine writing so often does, Empire Falls proves highly perceptive, offering insights into the heart and soul that rang so true I found myself nodding in agreement while reading on the train between New York and Boston. Yet Russo's prose is extraordinarily readable; Empire Falls is a Great Book disguised as a page-turner.

Much of today's currently lauded work comprises little more than artfully written character studies. The writing often is breathtaking, but once you close the book you feel more that you ought to have liked it than that you actually garnered real enjoyment out of reading it. Nothing much seems to happen, though the characters are always sharply sketched and brilliantly nuanced. E. Annie Proulx and Alice McDermott fall into this category, as would 80 percent of the stories that show up in The New Yorker. The stuff is worth reading, but the words feel vaguely detached, approaching sterility.

What makes Empire Falls so breathtaking is its humanity. Vividly drawn characters -- even the minor ones have their moments -- move through the book with a lot to say and do. The action moves briskly, and while you're reveling in, say, the middle-aged author's ability to channel the special brand of hell that makes up high school in 2003, 50 pages have melted away like an ice cream cone spilled on the blacktop.

The book tells the story of Empire Falls, Maine, a once proud and now-fading former company town whose destiny lies seemingly in the hands of an aging but strong-willed matriarch. The protagonist, Miles Roby, was one of the few people to make it out of Empire Falls, but returned before finishing college in order to care for his terminally ill mother; now, 20 years later, he's managing the Empire Grill, the breakfast and lunch place that's a second home to many of the townspeople. There is, of course, a dark family secret that manages to influence the characters' lives for decades; but mixed in among the heartbreak and tragedy are healthy doses of joy, hope, and compassion.

Shallow Center's self-styled Washington correspondent astutely points out that Empire Falls's signature strength is the obvious affection Russo has for his characters, and it's hard to disagree. From the opening page, he writes with extraordinary empathy about real people. There are no stereotypes here; everyone, from the corrupt, piss-ant, small-town cop to Miles's bitter ex-wife, is treated fairly and is permitted to display the full range of emotions and behaviors that comprise the human condition. That is, every character, no matter how major or minor, gets his or her full due. This is another significant departure from contemporary fiction, with its almost joyful rendering of the dysfunctional and its sneering dismissal of how men and women actually live their lives.

I never read Russo's novel Nobody's Fool, but the film version was an understated, sharp, and, yes, affectionate look at small-town life. Empire Falls seems more ambitious in its scope, and is a marvelous success.

The first writer who came to mind after I finished Empire Falls was Michael Chabon. His debut novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, was a well-written and solid, though not spectacular, look at young people in the Steel City. Wonder Boys, though, was completely fantastic, like Empire Falls a seamless merging of character, plot, and craftsmanship. Coincidentally, Chabon's own Pulitzer winner, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, sits on my nightstand to be delved into once I complete Charlie Pierce's collection of nonfiction magazine pieces, Sports Guy.


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