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Book Reviews

Empire Falls by Richard Russo
Dan Schnieder

I first encountered Richard Russo earlier this year when I saw tv ads for a miniseries based upon his bestselling book Empire Falls. It looked little better than the atrocious Mitch Albom's The Five People You Meet In Heaven miniseries. A few months later I came across reams of his short story collection, The Whore's Child, in a book discounter, and was amazed at how poorly the tales' opening and closing paragraphs were- a sure sign of a writer's worth, or lack thereof.

The hardback books were selling for $4.99 and I've been waiting for them to go to the 99¢ markdown shelves, so I could get a copy to review in depth. I was not exactly eager to pick up and read that actual book, nor was I eager to read his novel Empire Falls, but I did, because my wife got it from her mother's book club. I mean, it's 483 pages and he's a bad writer, right? And I'd just gotten finished reading Fyodor Dosteovsky's classic Crime And Punishment, which is a shorter book, believe it or not. So, you would think that I am going to report to you that Empire Falls is a bad book. No, I'm not. It's not a bad book, not merely a bad book- it's a horrible book! That it was even considered for a Pulitzer Prize, much less won it in 2001, says all you need to know about what is wrong with contemporary fiction.

Yes, there are the noxious PoMo wannabes- the Dave Eggers, the David Foster Wallaces, the David Sedarises, the Rick Moodys, and there are the banal, PC-minded elitists like Jhumpa Lahiri, Toni Morrison, and that ilk. But, then there are just plain old bad writers- writers who have no sense of character, narrative structure, indulge in clichés and mawkishness, and simply want to write things that do not offend nor challenge a soul. I knew one, years ago in the Twin Cities. I am ashamed to say that he bore my surname- Bart Schneider. He wormed his way into publication by connections at The Loft literary center and writing for and editing the Hungry Mind Review. He is who Richard Russo reminds me of. It is debatable who is worse, although given Russo's award winning stature he is certainly the more noxious presence on the arts scene.

Empire Falls reads like a fifth rate Jimmy Stewart film from the 1930s- too long, too dull, and far too plodding. The characters are all quirky small towners with secrets, and that trope has been done to death, and poorly, ever since David Lynch unleashed his film Blue Velvet and his tv series Twin Peaks. Yet, one cannot ascribe the book's failures to being merely part of a tired trend, for I recently read Ernie's Ark, a book by Monica Wood, that trods the very same ground, yet does so with style and excellence. Wood achieves a novelistic effect by telling nine short stories about a town from differing characters' points of view. Russo has a disgusting mélange of differing character voices, but they switch so abruptly, and with no logical reason, that it's akin to reading a schizophrenic's attempt at a diary- more properly a town history.

After a prologue sets up the Maine town of Empire Falls, and its main characters, we get over four hundred pages of exposition that, literally, a good writer could have done better in ten. The prose is horrible- lacking music, grace, and reality, and the conversation is even worse- stilted and never poetic. You never get a sense that you are really eavesdropping, but that the characters are merely pawns in a bad play- almost as if Thornton Wilder were demented and hatred his audience. We get overdescription of minutiae, and glossing over of what later seem to be pertinent facts. Yet, in the last hundred or so pages the whole tale turns gruesome- yet it's not realistic, and it's only gruesome in the Freddy Krueger or pulp fiction sort of way, not in reality. Russo has no sense of the genuinely macabre and since we're led to it by banal characters, we don't care. It's as if he's a Stephen King wannabe in half the book. Russo's idea of deep character revelation, as an example, is that one woman is obsessed with a perfect orgasm.

His main character, the Jimmy Stewart stand-in, is fortysomething Miles Roby - a depressed manager of the Empire Grill diner, owned by the town's bitchy matriarch Francine Whiting, who is so incompetent that his brother soon takes over the business, and so unable to emotionally relate to others that he converses with spirits - or himself? He returned to town after college to care for his dying mother, Grace. Yet, his mother has a secret - ooh! Will Miles Learn it? It involves the Whitings. Damn- you guessed it already. Was it that obvious? Yes, Miles is the illegitimate son of Francine's dead husband, and thus lies the source of her pleasure in torturing him - the living embodiment of her husband's betrayal. The Whiting family that owns the local mill is shutting it down, just as in Woods' Ernie's Ark, and Russo attempts to portray the despair of this dying town. Yet, he does so in scenes so long and dull that the reader does not care a whit. The old axiom that one does not portray a bad quality in a character or tale by recapitulating said quality in the writing is violated over and again. The fact is that there really is no story to tell in this town, or at least Russo is incapable of illuminating the small moments that dominated the pre-9/11 America.

He seems to have never met a cliché nor a trite character that he could not indulge. Empire Falls, book and town, reveals its motley inhabitants as a noble drunkard; Miles' dad (really stepdad) Max - the incorrigible dirty old man; a kid with a troubled past; mean bullies; Miles' ex-wife Janine, who has vengeance in her heart, and leaves him for the owner of a health club, Walt Comeau - who loves to shove the fact that he stole Janine from Miles in Miles' face; and a closeted homosexual priest, struggling with budding pedophilic urges; and the aforementioned Mrs. Whiting, who acts and talks as if she just stepped out of a Dynasty episode. Yet, all the characters are left hanging by book's end. It is ok to leave plot lines unresolved, especially in a realistic tale- but this is clearly a fairy tale environment, or, more aptly, a soap opera along the lines of the Lynchian universe, albeit greatly watered down.

In such a genre, the unresolved character storylines are not the embodiments of reality, but reminders of the writers' flaws and forgetfulness. The only character with some individuation is Miles' daughter, Tick, who may escape the town's doom, yet is a cold fish, herself. Her joy in life comes in a game of pointing out the misspellings and gaffes on local signs and in the newspaper to her dad, and thievery. Miles, meanwhile, dreams of opening a bookstore on Martha's Vineyard, yet does not leave because, for some reason he is in line to inherit the diner when Francine dies (see the above secret revealed- am I recapitulating Russo's flaws in this review? Dare I be PoMo? Dare I boil an egg?). He also recalls that a trip to Martha's Vineyard, when a boy, held significance in his life. In fact, he has known all along he is a Whiting scion, but repressed it, even though he hates his father in name- Max.

Another problem with the book is that, despite changing narrators, most of the 'drama', so to speak, takes place in the past, so we can easily surmise what happened to the assorted characters from the way they speak of the past. And, despite what critics have said, there is not a dram of genuine humor in this book. That is something far beyond the bounds of such a limited writer as Russo to achieve. Also, the circular nature of the tale, which starts and ends with the suicide of Francine's husband, and Miles' dad, C.B. Whiting, removes any hint of any real drama, despite the faux macabre scene toward the book's end, when the Columbine Massacre is given an East Coast going over- the book was written around the time this was deemed 'shocking'. Russo has some moments, here and there, but they are so few and scattered- a dozen or so lines lost in the nearly 500 page obscenity of triteness the book is- that they do not register in all but the best readers. Such a moment comes with a limning of C.B.'s character, in relation to Francine: '….he was fond of remarking, rather ruefully, that he always had the last word in all differences of opinion with his wife, and that- two words, actually- was, 'Yes, dear.'' Yet, that's about it as concerns genuine insight into a character.

Richard Russo is a bad writer; nay, a terrible writer- even soap operas have learnt to add pizzazz to such time worn banalities as he employs. I recall my father giving me Pat Conroy's wretched Beach Music a few years ago, and even that bilge was better than this piece of unmitigated crap, if only for being less convoluted, if not less mawkish. Russo is not even up to the level of middlebrow mediocrities like Conroy nor John Irving, the reigning masters of white bourgeois literary fiction lite. And you can, or should be able to, tell that from the very cringe-worthy pun in the book's title. He also has truck with Dan Brown, of The Da Vinci Code infamy, in that his characters are always having sudden bursts of insight, Aha! moments, and a weary fondness of telling us that 'such and such would not occur to his characters until….'. It's all tiring, and pretentious- something Dan Brown, to his credit, does not suffer from. Brown's a hack and knows it's made him a multi-millionaire. Russo has deluded, perhaps internally, or from his undeserved laurels, himself into thinking he can write. He is, at very best, an Oprah-level writer, and his work will be forgotten soon after his death, if not sooner. Evidence of this literary fate comes from the book's prototypical Hollywood film ending where, believe it or not, the mills are bailed out by a credit card company's purchase of them. A similar end affects Monica Woods' Ernie's Ark, but a comparison of the two works shows the difference between how a good writer can make such an event seem real, and a bad writer like Russo makes it seem inevitable. Do not give this charlatan a single penny of your cash. wait until the publishing world starts publishing real writers and novels of depth and conviction. They're out there, and just waiting to be given a break by an editor who merely likes the work, and does not realize the masterpiece they have in their possession. Mark my words!

© Dan Schneider March 2007
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