Monday, September 7, 2009

Empire Falls by Richard Russo

Interesting, Miles thought. Like himself, Father Mark, as a child, had been reassured by the imagined proximity to God, whereas adults, perhaps because they so often were up to no good, took more comfort from His remoteness. Though Miles didn't think of himself as a man up to no good, he did prefer the notion of an all-loving God to that of an all-knowing one. It pleased him to imagine God as someone like his mother, someone beleaguered by too many responsibilities, too dog-tired to monitor an energetic boy every minute of the day, but who, out of love and fear for his safety, checked in on him whenever she could. Was this so crazy? Surely God must have other projects besides Man, just as parents had responsibilities other than raising their children? Miles liked the idea of a God who, when He at last had the opportunity to return His attention to His children, might shake His head with wonder and mutter, "Jesus. Look what they're up to now." A distractible God, perhaps even one who'd be startled to discover so many of His children way up in the trees since last time He looked. A God whose hand would go rushing to His mouth in fear that instant of recognition that--good God!--that kid's going to hurt himself. A God who could be surprised by unanticipated pride--glory be, that boy is a climber.

This might be the best book I've read all year. A friend of mine here in Cameroon recommended it in passing and then randomly came across it in the bookshelves of the Peace Corps office in Yaoundé. I'm genuinely lucky that he found it because I haven't come across a book this hard to put down in a long, long time.

Empire Falls is the story of Miles Roby, a middle-age man who runs the local diner in a small Maine town that has become a shell of its former self. Once a thriving community, Empire Falls has been falling apart since the textile mill and shirt factor closed thirty years ago. Miles is in the middle of a midly ugly divorce and just scraping by financially . After discovering some shocking news about his past and dealing with a tragedy at his daughter's high school, Miles is forced to get himself out of his rut and head off in a new direction for his daughter's sake if not for his own.

Russo just has a lot going on in Empire Falls. He tackles religion, love, despair, angst, cruelty, and just about every other aspect of the human experience. I particularly enjoyed the passages that depict different character's personal concepts of God, like the one above. One character, Father Mike delivers a sermon titled 'When God Retreats,' in which he describes sin as a moment in which God turns his back upon us so that we can find our way back to him on our own. I found that idea to be particularly thoughtful and comforting.

Heredity is an important theme in the novel. Heredity and the unavoidability of fate, I suppose. The characters are who they are and always will be because their parents were who they were and always would be. Zack Minty is a dirtbag because his dad's a dirtbag because his dad was a dirtbag. Miles is his mother's son as his brother David is his father's. As Korn* would say, 'nothing changes, just rearranges.'

All of the characters are intricately fleshed-out. Even the antagonists come across as just people who do bad things, instead of flatly bad people (perhaps with the exception of Zack Minty). Miles is a great character. He's intelligent, caring, and simply the kind of guy you'd want to be pals with. He does have his shortcomings, of course. Miles is a personification of the town itself. He's not quite falling apart, but he's certainly not picking himself up, either. He allows himself to be put in positions he'd rather not be and lets people walk all over him at times. Still, in the end he makes a stand when it matters and doesn't let those important to him down.

There are so many things I want to say about this book. Miles mother, Grace, is a character I could go on for pages about. As are the Whitings, the rich family that once owned the factory and the mill with a bizarre history of domestic discord and a deep connection to Miles' own. I wish I'd been taking notes as I read it, but I devoured the damn thing so quickly I didn't want to waste time jotting down my thoughts. I say this a lot in my reviews, but read this book. You simply will not regret it.

Highlights: The Silver Fox, the prologue, the Whiting family, "This is what I dream..."
Lowlights:Zack Minty's single dimension... Really not much else.

*I'm sorta pissed that there's no backwards R in the windows character map


Christopher said...

How long did you search for the backwards R? I'm gonna say at least eight minutes.

Nihil Novum said...

I've had this book for a couple years but haven't really had the motivation to read it. This review might have changed my mind. Good work.

Also: Я

Anonymous said...


Jim said...

yeah sorry Chris but as proven I just assumed that KoЯn's proper spelling wasn't available on windows

I really phoned that review in.

Nihil Novum said...

Don't apologize to Chris; apologize to Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

no need to apologize to me. if i had read Nihil's first comment more closely, i would've noticed he had already shown the backward R.

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