Saturday, October 16, 2010

Empire Falls by Richard Russo

Richard Russo is another authors whose much-awaited book I picked up at the Book Expo and promptly sold.  Last spring, I read That Old Cape Magic and realized that it was worth the fuss surrounding it.  Although one friend told me she found it "depressing," I found it interesting and very readable.  So, when I stumbled upon his Pulitzer Prize winning book Empire Falls at a discount store in Nova Scotia, I promptly put it in my basket--not much of a risk for a $1.50 outlay.

As a bit of a digression, Empire Falls was made into a mini-series and I had it in my Netflix-equivalent queue in Nova Scotia all summer, with no success.  This explains the cover art on my copy of the book, which proudly displays the actors who play the key roles in the movie.  I personally tend to avoid books with movie cover art for a couple of reasons.  First, despite my distinctly low brow taste in books as a general matter, the publisher trading on the fact that the book has been made into a movie seems to demean the writing  in some way.  (Maybe this explains why I've been lugging a copy of The Secret Life of Bees from New Jersey to Nova Scotia and back (and now to Florida) without even opening the book, despite the fact that I really want to read it.)  Second, seeing which actors played the roles every time I pick up the book vastly reduces my ability to create my own image of the characters.  In this case--spoiler alert--I can't seem to get over the fact that Paul Newman played the unkempt and rascally Max.  Call me crazy, but I just don't like to envision Newman with a food-encrusted beard.  I do, however, find it interesting that Philip Seymour Hoffman played Miles, the book's protagonist.  (In fact, this is why it was in my movie queue to begin with.)

Russo tells an engrossing story of life in a town that the 21st century has passed by.  The mills and factories that once provided employment for most of the town's residents have closed down, and you can almost see tumbleweeds rolling down what used to be the bustling main road.   Our protagonist runs a local diner, and it's a family affair--his brother is one of the cooks, his daughter helps out in the kitchen and his father, the urstwhile Max, occasionally washes a dish or two while looking for a hand-out.   The story in and of itself is interesting, and makes me think about what life must be like in many towns that have suffered a similar fate (think of Pittsfield, MA, which was abandoned by General Electric).  What makes this book memorable, though, is Russo's character development and insights into human behavior.  Miles struggles daily to make a living in a town that he hoped never to return to when he left for college.  The quirks of fate had something else in mind, though, leaving him in a state of constant wonder about the choices that he's made.  Miles' high school-aged daughter Tick exhibits a wisdom beyond her years, and some of Russo's most striking language comes when he speaks through her.  (At one point in the book Tick realizes that her ex-boyfriend is flirting with another girl.  When they were a couple, such behavior would have driven her crazy.  Now she doesn't care, and thinks that "Not giving a s**t is like the defrost option on a car's heater that miraculously unfogs the windshield, allowing you to see where you're going."   I am four-fifths of the way through this novel, and am anxious to see where this story is going, a sure sign of a book worth reading.

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