Thursday, November 1, 2012

Hope ~ quiet desperation notwithstanding

 Review of Empire Falls, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Richard Russo

Miles Roby is Everyman, or at least every middle-aged person. Well, at least he would be if all of us were as honest about his or her motives as Miles is about his. For me, Miles Roby’s thoughts and emotions were the most compelling aspect of Richard Russo’s Empire Falls. Who among us has not wrestled with finding fulfillment in life, choosing how to treat difficult people, cowering under and climbing over weighty fears, trying to understand our family members’ choices, piecing together childhood flashbacks, sorting through others’ expectations of us? Russo has crafted a story that certainly inspires contemplation of the motivational strength of good and evil, love and hate.

The story in Empire Falls spans three generations, although present action takes place in just a short period of months. For all Miles Roby’s introspection and Empire Falls’ small-town simplicity, the story also contains a fair amount of action, some violent. Forty-two-year-old Miles manages the Empire Grill, and most main characters have a long history with the town of Empire Falls, so the story weaves long-standing and new conflicts with comfortable, candid friendships as Miles confronts his seemingly impossible dreams.  Conflicts and friendships are among family members, among Miles’ high school friends, and with Francine Whiting, the wealthy woman who “owns” the town and whose mantra is “power and control.”

This is a book you will not just read—you will experience. The hair on the back of your neck will prickle when edgy Jimmy Minty enters a scene. You’ll prickle, plus hold your breath, when his menacing son Zack walks onstage. You might want to shake Max until he develops a conscience; you’ll certainly marvel at Miles’ loving patience with him. You’d like to grab a cup of coffee and sit down with Father Mark. Sometimes you’ll pity Janine; other times you’ll wash your hands of her. You’ll want to put protective arms around Miles’ and Janine’s teen daughter Tick, just as Miles longs to. You’ll root for Miles and his yearnings. These and other characters are so well-wrought, you’ll live their scenes right along with them.

A few miscellaneous comments … I think this story could have been told with much less crude profanity. I like the undercurrent of Miles’ faith as anchor, comfort, and source of wisdom. And I love Russo’s signature wry humor. Here’s just one example: “For Miles, one of the great mysteries of marriage was that you had to actually say things before you realized they were wrong.” I like how Miles perseveres to find life in an economically depressed town and how he chooses people and kindness over more alluring pursuits. I like the cerebral nature of this book; Miles thinks through his relational dilemmas and has a pivotal epiphany—with Russo revealing Miles’ ponderings all along the way. And I like how Russo explores Miles’ relationship with his mother. Although she died long ago, she is ever present in Miles’ life, not just as a shaper of his character. It is a mystery of her life that Miles must solve in order to surmount his fears. Russo is a master storyteller of interpersonal relationships, and I highly recommend this Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel.

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