Everybody’s Fool.

I loved Richard Russo’s peak novels, including Empire Falls, Straight Man, and Nobody’s Fool, all of which combined great characterization (of men, at least), well-developed settings, and a mix of humor both lowbrow and high to present slices of life in declining Northeastern mill towns. The last one I mentioned followed the exploits of Donald “Sully” Sullivan, a charming ne’er-do-well who twists the folk hero archetype around and makes us cheer for him as he puts one over on his various nemeses in their small community. Sully returns in a sequel, Everybody’s Fool, set ten years after the original story, and while it’s a pleasant read on its own, it can’t stand up to the shadow of its predecessor.

This time around, Russo gives us two protagonists, Sully and the cop he was jailed for punching in the first book, Doug Raymer, who is now the chief of police, and is Sully’s antiparticle. Where Sully is confident to the point of rashness, Raymer is constantly worried that he’s doing the wrong thing, whether in his job or in his now ended marriage to a woman who died by falling down the steps as she was preparing to leave him for an unknown lover. Raymer and his assistant, Charice, are clearly going to end up an item by the end of the book, although he’s hesitating both because of their work relationship and because they’re different races. Meanwhile, Sully has ended his affair with his paramour Ruth, but her daughter Janie is now a mother herself, and Janie’s ex-boyfriend is an abusive asshole who keeps showing up despite an order of protection. Carl and Rub are still around from the first book, Wirf and Miss Beryl aren’t. Peter, Sully’s son, just shows up in passing; the missing cobra at the heart of the funniest subplot gets more page time.

Everybody’s Fool is similar to the first book, but it’s not the same because it can’t be, even though Russo seems deadset on recreating the past. By setting this book ten years in the future and continuing the stroke of good luck that hit Sully at the end of the first book, Russo has flipped his world upside down and has to give Sully a new stroke of bad luck – a bad diagnosis on his heart from a VA doctor – to try to rebalance the scales, but it doesn’t work. Sully was charming in the first book because he used his charisma and wiles to get by; now that he’s living on Easy Street, he comes off as more of a jerk. His best friend, Rub, is a pathetic character, and Sully’s good natured ribbing now appears mean. Carl probably deserves what Sully gives him, but there are moments where Carl is at least trying to reach across the divide for a moment of shared humanity, and Sully can’t be bothered. I loved Sully in the first book, but here, I found him exasperating.

Raymer, meanwhile, ends up with more time at center stage, and the results are mixed, as he’s certainly not as compelling a lead as Sully was. Russo tries to infuse some depth to him by giving Raymer a sort of devil on his shoulder (after he’s hit by a lightning strike) who pushes him to be bold and decisive where Raymer would ordinarily be reticent. In some scenes, such as the resolution to the cobra story, it works beautifully, the sort of serendipitous denouement at which Russo excels; in others, it comes across like Russo is trying to make Raymer sound like a crazy person, and it instead feels like a bad comic device.

I can understand an author wanting to revisit some of his favorite creations, both characters and places, but for a second novel in the same setting to work, it has to tell us something new, and I don’t think Everybody’s Fool accomplishes that in the least. Russo creates new problems for old friends and solves them in mostly expected ways. The one surprise of the book is a new character, Jerome, Charice’s brother, a side character whose depth is slowly revealed over the course of the book, and who probably should have been its main character after all – although if Russo were anxious about writing a book with an African-American protagonist, I could certainly understand that. Jerome and Charice were just what this fictional town needed: a dose of something completely different, an injection of otherness into a sea of white blue-collar folks that could have made Everybody’s Fool feel like a fresh look at an old milieu. Instead, we get a pleasant read that breaks no new ground. It’s like a Pixar sequel, where we’re glad to see the characters we loved, but realize at the end that we didn’t learn anything new about them.

Next up: I mentioned yesterday that I’m reading Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, and the next review will cover Allen Drury’s Pulitzer winner Advise and Consent.

Bridge of Sighs.

I started Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs ready to joke in my writeup that, in book reviews, “ambitious” is merely a euphemism for “long.” I’ve read the five novels that precede this one on Russo’s bibliography, including the amazing, Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls, and while I think his books are smart, funny, and deep, I did not consider them “ambitious.” Bridge of Sighs, as you have probably guessed by now, is a work of great ambition, a sprawling modern epic with multiple foci, exploring themes of love, betrayal, mortality, meaning, and hate across more than fifty years in a small, dying town in upstate New York.

That town, Thomaston, is the birthplace of the two men at the center of the book, narrator Lou C. (“Lucy,” a nickname he never wanted or liked) Lynch and his on-and-off childhood friend Bobby Marconi. Shifting among three narratives, Russo tells their stories, weaving them together and tearing them apart, using Lucy’s own memoir-in-progress for the history of Lucy, Bobby, and their incredibly different families; jumping to the third person for the present-day perspective on Lucy’s strained marriage to his high school sweetheart, the almost too-perfect Sara; and Bobby, now a world-renowned painter living in Europe and contemplating the nearing end of his career and his life while he fights an undetermined health issue.

Russo eschews the easy plot device of having everything look perfect on the surface, only to shock the reader by showing how imperfect everything is; he makes it clear from the start that Lucy and Bobby are both damaged people, and lets the gradual revelations of major events from their childhoods provide the surprises, tossing in a little narrative greed as he goes. You don’t actually find out what happened between Bobby and his father until roughly 90% of the way through the book, but you can start to create and fill in an outline just by watching the evolution of their relationship. Lucy presents himself at the start as a married father and successful local businessman, but how successful and how happy are questions that open up as the story develops. Complicating his history and tying the two estranged friends together is Sara, who came from a broken home of her own, adopted the Lynches as a surrogate family as she dated Lucy, but found herself drawn to the raw, emotional Bobby when he reappears for their senior year of high school.

The contrast between the safe, steady affection between Sara and Lucy and the seething rage that emanates from Bobby is a central theme for Russo, who never seems to favor the measured (or bottled up) Lynch style over the open, dangerous emotions of Bobby:

It was amazing, when you thought about it, how effortlessly hate slipped into the space reserved for love and vice versa, as if these two things, identical in size and shape, had been made compatible by design. How satisfying a substitute each was for the other.

But rather than mire the story in a love triangle, or a tragic romance, Russo folds that into the comfortable ground of the yearnings of kids in a small, failing industrial town – Thomaston’s main industry, a tannery, slowly heads for extinction all while polluting the river and raising the town’s cancer rates – for something more than the hamlet can offer them. In Bridge, however, Russo moves those sentiments around; sometimes it’s the kids racing to get out of Dodge, but as often it’s their parents hoping their children leave for something better, all while they try to figure out a way to survive financially in a local economy that keeps shrinking. Lucy’s father, a hopeless optimist, loses his milkman job to modernization, only to buy a corner market as A&P locates the town’s first supermarket out by the highway. That corner market becomes the central hub of action as the kids go through junior high and high school – taking the place of the diner that lies at the heart of most Russo novels – but the work the Lynches put into it, and the role it ends up playing in their lives, symbolizes the work required to keep a marriage of two seemingly incompatible people together, even in unfavorable circumstances.

Another theme, perhaps coming from Russo’s own advancing age, is one of regret even for a life lived well – a “road not taken” question that Bobby and Sara in particular end up facing, although Lucy has his own questions about what might have been and even his mother and uncle (the roguish Dec, a classic Russo character) end up in the act. Sara’s parents seemed very two-dimensional, but I thought they might represent Russo’s unflattering takes on two extreme life paths – her angry, faithless, emotionally distant father on one side, and her unsatisfiable, self-serving, emotionally stunted mother on the other – that, I suppose, help explain why Sara is so grounded, so clear, and so able (mostly) to be happy with where she is and what she has.

If I have a criticism of Bridge of Sighs, it’s that Russo’s trademark humor is so much less in evidence. If Straight Man is his funniest work, this is probably his most serious. The gags are often little verbal jabs, rather than the slapstick and broad farce that characterizes his earlier novels:

After all, it wasn’t just people in big cities who had big dreams. Wasn’t her father himself a perfect example? Though he considered himself an urbanite, he’d grown up, as her mother had delighted in reminding him back when they were still living as husband and wife, on Staten Fucking Island.

I laughed, but hey, if you haven’t been caught in traffic on the Staten Island Expressway, that might not be quite so funny.

I’m barely doing the serious side of this book justice, however; it’s deeper and more literary than even Empire Falls, even if it’s not quite as exhilarating a read. The prose is classic Russo, as are the many full-fleshed characters, the setting, and the very realistic dramas that drive the book. If it’s a little less witty than normal, he has at least made up for it through his ambition.

Next up: I finished Dave Jamieson’s Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession, which I would certainly recommend to those of you who collected cards in your youths or are simply interested in baseball history; and have just barely begun Abdelrahman (or Abdul Rahman or Abd el-Rahman) Munif’s Cities of Salt­, which appears on the Novel 100 list at #71.

The Patron Saint of Liars & The Whore’s Child.

Ann Patchett’s debut novel, The Patron Saint of Liars, showcases the kind of insightful, compassionate writing that helped make her magnum opus, Bel Canto, such a critical and commercial success, although Liars lacks the same degree of storycraft found in Bel Canto or in The Magician’s Assistant. It is, however, one of the best sad books I have ever read, as the story of a woman who is hopelessly broken inside and yet can’t help but damage the people close to her through her inability to deal with her own fears and insecurities.

The primary liar in the book is Rose, who flees a comfortable marriage in California when she discovers she’s pregnant and “realizes” – or decides? – that she isn’t actually in love with her husband. She ends up at a Catholic home for pregnant girls who want to have their babies and give them up for adoption, but Rose ends up staying on well past her ninth month – and keeps her daughter as well, only to find herself unable to be a mother to her child or even much of a wife to her second husband. Patchett gives us a window into Rose’s sadness but never much of an explanation for it beyond the death of her father in a car accident when Rose was three. Her own daughter, Cecilia, reaches her early teens before her mother leaves the picture, but Rose is unable to mother her and Cecilia ends up forming bonds both with the nuns who run the facility and the girls who come in for six or seven or eight months and then mostly disappear from her life.

The book comprises three sections, and though Rose is the central character in the book, she only narrates the first third, and her motives for lying and leaving were never fully clear to me. Son, the groundskeeper she meets and marries at St. Elizabeth’s, narrates the second part, and Cecilia handles the third, and both were more compelling, deeply drawn characters with the ability to process and communicate their own complex emotions in ways that Rose’s character cannot. And Sister Evangeline, a sort of grandmother-figure/mystic in the group of otherwise grey, dour nuns is a scene-stealer whenever she appears.

The Patron Saint of Liars is a sad book, but not a bleak one. Rose is clearly depressed and her lack of progress or recognition is heartbreaking, especially as it threatens the lives of those closest to her. But there are streaks of hope not for Rose but for Son and especially Cecilia, who wants her mother to be a mother but has also has the strength to find that nurturing from others and is, at the book’s end, developing into a healthier, fuller person than her mother ever was. It is imperfect, from Rose’s scant motives to her ambiguous fate in what becomes Son’s and Cecilia’s story, but Patchett writes about emotions so clearly and empathetically that I moved through the book’s pages as I might through a novel of action.

Richard Russo’s first short story collection, The Whore’s Child and Other Stories, feels almost like a collection of rarities and B-sides, with a few outstanding entries that, in total, wouldn’t be enough for a full volume, so the publisher stuck in a first draft and a few throwaways to provide some bulk, although the hardcover edition still barely reaches 200 pages even with generous line spacing. The highlights are vintage Russo, though, and it’s worth going through the collection to find those stories and moments.

The main thrust of these stories seems to be failure, especially confronting failure of the past with the uncertainty of the future among his mostly middle-aged protagonists, many of whom are professors, writers, or other sorts of artists. The title story is told by a creative writing professor who has an unusual student auditing his class, one who becomes the star of the show for her brutally honest writing that turns out to be an exploration of her own sad childhood. Several stories revolve around failed marriages – I found “Monhegan Light,” in which a successful cinematographer chooses to meet the man who cuckolded him, only to find himself the loser in the confrontation, very disturbing – and “The Farther You Go” is the ancestor of his novel Straight Man, condensing the story of the narrator’s daughter throwing her husband out of the house.

My main problem with the novel is that the inherently brief nature of the short story limits Russo’s ability to introduce the local color of side characters and the comic relief of subplots and running gags. Instead, we’re left with a sort of stark, gloomy fatalism about lives lived wrong without hope of a turnaround or just a temporary uptick. Only the final story, “The Mysteries of Linwood Hart,” brought that mix of humor and sadness in a sort of of coming-of-age story with a number of baseball-related scenes, but the attempts to decipher a complicated adult relationship through the eyes of the ten-year-old title character felt blurry.

I’ve enjoyed the five Russo novels I’ve read, especially Empire Falls and The Risk Pool, but I’d recommend The Whore’s Child for completists (like me) only, as the title story alone isn’t enough to justify buying the whole book.

I received a review copy of a new short story collection by Justin Taylor called Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, but the collection doesn’t live up to the title. I found the stories crude and immature, with the young writer’s obsession with sex (and with using sex as the primarily vehicle for meaning in the lives of his characters) and an evident lack of life experience. The characters were uninteresting, sometimes two-dimensional and largely self-absorbed, and their actions struck me as forced.


We’re having major work done on our house, so we’re living out of a nearby hotel this week (frequent-guest and -flyer points are one of the few compensations for a high-travel job), which has cut down on blogging time, which is a long way of saying I’m sorry for the long gap between posts. I did chat yesterday on ESPN.com, and my top 100 ranking for the upcoming draft is already with my editors, so I’m hopeful we’ll see that on the site later today.

Richard Russo’s first novel, Mohawk, has most of the elements that made his next four novels (The Risk Pool, Nobody’s Fool, Straight Man, and Empire Falls) so good, but in many ways it’s obvious that it’s his rookie effort, since the well-drawn characters are existing rather than traveling through a coherent plot, and the humor isn’t as easy as it is in his later books.

There’s no single central character in Mohawk, although the ex-spouses Dallas and Anne and their son Randall are fairly close to the center of the book, involved in much of what goes on even though Dallas is more actor than active emotional participant. Anne has to be one of Russo’s best female characters, a middle-aged woman who is still paying for a mistake of teenaged rebellion while pining for a man she knows she can never have and feuding with her mother, a passive-aggressive shrew who would drive the Dalai Lama to drink. Russo fills Mohawk with many of the usual cast of blue-collar characters, including the greasy-spoon owner, the bookie, and the dirty cop, each of whom finds himself woved into one of the various plot strands when he’s not there for comic relief.

While it’s a fun and quick read, like the other four Russo novels, Mohawk doesn’t offer the strong, compelling story of those books, as it’s more a slice of life in a dying northeastern industrial town with the sort of folks Russo has since shown he loves to create. It’s worth reading for Russo fans, especially because it’s a look at a great writer in a formative period, but I wouldn’t recommend this as a starting point to readers just starting out with his work.

Next up: Still slogging through Junichiro Tanazaki’s The Makioka Sisters, kind of a dense, slow period piece. Best part so far is the footnote defining the word “sushi.”

Straight Man.

I’ll be on Mike & Mike on Wednesday morning at 9:40 am EST, and on ESPN Radio’s Baseball Tonight that evening in the 7 pm hour. Chats are completely up in the air until the end of spring training due to conflicts with games.

I don’t dislike Gracie. At least I don’t dislike her when I think about her. When I’m in one place and she’s in another. It’s when she’s near enough to backhand that backhanding her always seems like a good idea.

Hank Devereaux, the narrator and title character of Richard Russo’s brilliant
Straight Man
, is a serious man wholly incapable of being serious, even when the situation calls for it. A tenured professor at a small public university in west-central Pennsylvania, Devereaux holds the temporary chairmanship of the English department (a job he doesn’t really want), believes that his brightest students “have concluded that what’s most important in all educational settings is to avoid the ridicule of the less gifted,” finds himself at the center of various family crises, and desperately needs to take a good, long piss*.

*Indeed, if talk of urination or male genitalia offends you, this may not be the book for you. I also wouldn’t recommend reading this if you’re drunk and trying not to break the seal.

Russo fills Straight Man with his standard menagerie of irresponsible men, generally responsible if somewhat inscrutable women, and small-town characters, but he aims his satirical instincts squarely at liberal-arts universities and their fatuous faculty members, including a couple of grade-A wackos in Devereaux’s department. The school is under pressure from the legislature to cut costs, an annual event, but this year a persistent rumor of a mass firing in the English department has everyone edge, with even tenured professors concerned they’re about to be let go and all members convinced that Devereaux has acceded to the demands of higher-ups by drawing up a proposed list of instructors to be cut – a fear he does nothing to dispel even though the legend is false. And he manages to escalate the issue by threatening on live (and very local) television to murder a goose if he doesn’t get a budget figure from the state by the following Monday, a spontaneous (if inspired) move that, of course, has unintended consequences.

While not quite as nuanced as his prior two novels, Straight Man is the funniest of the four Russo books I’ve read. Devereaux is sarcastic, but complex, carrying the burdens of an upbringing by two parents incapable of showing much love (one of whom, his father, eventually skipped out for an affair with a graduate student) and a daughter incapable of making responsible decisions (the one truly irresponsible woman in the book) as well as the weight of a career that went neither as far nor as well as he’d hoped. Devereaux published one book twenty years earlier and it turned out to be the only book he had in him. While that doesn’t make him a failure, it hasn’t given him the confidence of a history of success to drive him forward in his academic career or make him recognize the unusual stability of his home life. It probably has, however, prevented him from growing out of his sardonic (dare I say “snarky?”) personality, which is all the better for the reader.

The one hitch in Straight Man, a minor one at that, is the lack of a really strong female character. Hank’s wife, Lily, is a little too perfect, and spends much of the book away on a job interview, giving Hank a chance to really get himself into trouble. Hank’s secretary, Rachel, appears in every Russo book in some form – the sweet, somewhat attractive, meek woman with horrible taste in men – and his mother, an aloof, haughty woman largely devoid of maternal affectins, feels a little recycled as well. None of this detracted from the book’s humor or Russo’s compassion for his central male characters one iota. I enjoyed Straight Man on multiple levels and I’d recommend it to just about everyone.

You can also see my previous reviews of three other Russo novels – Empire Falls, Nobody’s Fool, and The Risk Pool – all of which were excellent.

Next up: Toni Morrison’s Jazz.

The Risk Pool.

My column on the 18U Team USA trials went up the other day. You can hear my hit from Mike & Mike in the Morning today and from AllNight last night. Both were recorded on the same phone but I sound quite different in each hit. Go figure.

Richard Russo was already one of my favorite novelists after I’d read just two of his books, Empire Falls and Nobody’s Fool*, but The Risk Pool cemented my affinity for his writing. I’m not sure if there’s a contemporary American novelist out there who can match Russo for both creating flawed characters and showing a clear affection for them despite their flaws, written in clear, modern prose with plenty of humor.

*Apropos of nothing, I read Nobody’s Fool right before reading William Kennedy’s Legs, then read this book right after reading Kennedy’s Ironweed, with all four novels set in upstate New York. This wasn’t a plan to read novels in geographical order – it just sort of happened.

The Risk Pool is the story of the relationship between Ned Hall and his parents, the shiftless, irresponsible Sam Hall and the wife, Jenny, he abandoned – mostly – when Ned was born and Jenny’s father died. Ned spends his childhood shuffled from Jenny to Sam and back to Jenny again, through Jenny’s mental collapse (caused in no small way by Sam) and Sam’s movement in and out of jail, sobriety, and the town (Mohawk) where Ned grows up.

Although the story is told by Ned and populated by Russo’s regular crew of local wackos, the star of the show is Sam. The elder Hall comes back from World War II a changed man, living entirely in the present, abandoning his responsibilities toward his strait-laced wife and newborn son without actually skipping town or exiting their lives entirely. Russo could easily have made Sam a villain, or just written about him with derision or obvious distaste, but Russo always embraces his flawed characters, and you can see that he enjoyed crafting Sam and putting him into odd situations to see what he’d do.

Ned finds himself torn physically and emotionally between his two parents, feeling more affection toward his father than he does toward his fragile, smothering mother, while trying not to become too much like either parent. His success or failure in this endeavor isn’t revealed until the final few pages of the book, but that question – how will Ned turn out – has a strong narrative pull in a book that doesn’t offer many unresolved questions to drag you forward. The story is driven by the characters, and because the characters are interesting, that’s just about enough.

The two Russo novels I read both had plenty of humorous moments, but The Risk Pool was definitely the funniest, both in situational comedy but also in Russo’s prose. There’s an extended riff when Ned ends up with the prim wife and timid daughter of one of Mohawk’s wealthiest families where Russo’s prose style emulates Wodehouse’s for a half-dozen pages, mostly as Ned mentally mocks the older woman’s bizarre mannerisms:

She discovered the lights at the same instant the strangling Lincoln gave a violent lurch forward, coughed once, and died.
“Oh dear,” said Mrs. Ward, as if she could imagine no way out of this unforeseen circumstance and suspected that they would now have to purchase a new car.

If The Risk Pool has a flaw, it’s Russo’s excessive use of disposable characters. In his later books, Russo uses slightly fewer side characters and integrates them more fully into the main plot, whereas The Risk Pool has more characters that Russo shunts aside when he’s done with them. I also found the relationship between Sam Hall and his on/off girlfriend Eileen – and Eileen’s son, Drew – a little unclear in the end, particularly where Sam and Eileen had stood before Sam married Jenny and went off to war. Whether this was a deliberate omission on Russo’s part or a minor plot hole he didn’t close isn’t clear (and I can’t say more without spoiling one of the book’s few mysteries).

Next up: Edwin O’Connor’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Edge of Sadness. Also, for those of you who were interested in a “book club” of sorts, how about Don Robertson’s The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread? (Granted, I might have made that subtitle up.) It’s coming up in my queue, and it’s on the short side so it should be accessible to everyone. If I have a handful of takers, I’ll fix a discussion date about two weeks ahead of us.

Nobody’s Fool.

Admin stuff for today: Chat 1 pm EST, and I’ll be on ESPN 710 in Los Angeles at 1:40 pm PST.

Sully had known Rub too long to believe this particular coincidence. He could tell by the way the young man was carrying his large head, like a medicine ball precariously balanced on his thick shoulders, that he was coming to see Sully and that he wanted to borrow money. In fact, Sully could tell just by looking at him how much Rub wanted (twenty dollars), how much he’d settle for (ten), and how long it would take for them to arrive at this figure (thirty minutes).

Sully is the ne’er-do-well protagonist of Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool, written before his Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls and something of a tune-up work, a funny and engaging novel where the reader can see the author working on his craft, particularly his prose.

Sully, né Donald Sullivan, is a sixty-year-old man living in a dying town in upstate New York, a ne’er-do-well in a community short of do-wells of any ilk, although his own brand of doing-not-well is as unique as a fingerprint. He’s surrounded by a cast of believably-crazy locals, from the dimwitted Rub of the above quote to his tightly-wound ex-wife Vera to his landlady Miss Beryl (who talks to her late husband’s picture as well as to the African mask on her wall) and her hyper-ambitious son Clive Jr. Yet Sully is most affected by one character who died before the book even began – his alcoholic, abusive father.

Russo unfolds a tableau more than he tells a straight story, although there is ultimately a central narrative thread revolving around Sully’s relationship with his father and reconnection with his estranged son, Peter, whose own marriage and career are falling apart through bad choices in a higher-rent variation of Sully’s life. The story is richer by far for the additional characters and subplots – although “subplot” sounds so perfunctory for the side stories Russo weaves so well into and around the main narrative – built around well-rounded characters living believable lives and facing difficult choices.

Many of those choices revolve around getting older, whether it’s the infirmities and occasional indignities of aging (faced by, among others, Sully and his wounded knee, and Miss Beryl and her slender threads of independence), or anticipating and then dealing with the death of a parent. Yet despite so many heavy storylines – among others, there’s a man who hunts down and nearly kills his estranged wife – Russo manages to infuse the book with humor, particularly in the dialogue. Sully is the perfect smartass, a lifelong class clown who never stops running his mouth, often to his own detriment – not that that stops him from running it.

Empire Falls is a more complete novel, with a better-rounded storyline and a more empathetic main character, but it doesn’t have the same degree of wit or slapstick as Nobody’s Fool; I preferred the former but would recommend the latter as well. And I credit Russo for acknowledging that life revolves around food by putting that most American of culinary institutions, the greasy spoon, at the center of both novels.

Next up: William Kennedy’s Legs, part one of the “Albany” trilogy that eventually earned him a Pulitzer Prize of his own.

Empire Falls.

The moral of this story is that I need to listen to my readers when they recommend a book, because they’re two for two so far. The most recent successful suggestion is Richard Russo’s Empire Falls.

The book’s jacket describes Russo as a “compassionate” writer, which sounds like something that some halfwit in marketing came up with after reading two or three pages of the book, but it turns out to be an incredibly apt description of the way Russo creates and develops his characters. Empire Falls is set in a declining mill town in Maine, and the plot centers on the slightly hapless Miles Roby, manager of the Empire Grill, father of a teenaged daughter, en route to a divorce from his longtime wife Janine, who is leaving him for Walt Comeau, the “Silver Fox” who owns the local gym and is forever challenging Miles to an arm-wrestle. His daughter, Tick, is having her own troubles, including an ex-boyfriend with anger issues, a classmate with a terrible family life and who never speaks, and difficulty dealing with her parents’ divorce, which she squarely blames on her mother. And Russo has populated the town with a number of other characters, all surprisingly well developed despite limited screen time, from Miles’ kleptomaniac father, Max, to the young and possibly gay Catholic priest Mark, to the omnipresent town matriarch, Francine Whiting, who has Miles and perhaps the rest of the community by the balls. Yet with perhaps the sole exception of that last character, everyone in the book is presented with some degree of compassion or at least understanding – people are shaped by their circumstances, some of which are beyond their control, and while many people manage to overcome disadvantageous backgrounds, it’s too easy just to pile blame on those who can’t or won’t.

The story revolves around Miles Roby’s divorce and some of the events in his life that the arrival of the actual legal event (as opposed to the end of his marriage, which happened some time prior to the book’s opening) sets in motion. He has spent twenty years of his life at the restaurant, forever awaiting the day when Francine Whiting will give him the restaurant, probably through her death, which doesn’t seem all that imminent. Russo tells Miles’ story through intermittent flashbacks and changes in perspective, revealing in stages the history of the Whitings, Miles’ family history, and even some of the stories behind the other characters. And since the town is so small, all of the stories intersect at multiple points with other stories, characters run into other characters, and in very thin sheets Russo gives us more and more details on each of them.

The book also reads as an allegorical history of small-town New England, which is dotted with slumping or failing former mill towns that have never really recovered from the end of the area’s textile industry. Empire Falls residents continue to cling to hopes that the mill will re-open and that those who remained will get their old jobs back, remembering, perhaps, good old days that weren’t all that good, and that aren’t coming back even if the town does find a new industry.

The story finally turns in its last fifty or so pages on the one real event of the book, the external stimulus that shocks Miles out of his emotional stupor. It was foreshadowed for a while in the book, but Russo handled it deftly and quickly, almost as if he disdained writing about action when he had dialogue and introspection to write.

A couple of quick notes:

  • This is the seventh winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction that I’ve read, and it’s been a mixed bag. Beloved and To Kill a Mockingbird are among my favorite novels, but Independence Day was disappointing, and I thought The Shipping News managed the twin feat of being vulgar and uninteresting.
  • I was helping out at the Tepper School of Business’s table at an MBA recruiting event on Sunday, and had my copy of Empire Falls sitting on the table. One prospective student noticed it hidden behind a sign, pointed, and just said, “Great book.” Turns out he’s a Mainer and thought that Russo did a fantastic job of capturing the culture of the state’s small towns.