Richard Russo – Empire Falls

empire falls

This is the first book I have finished since having my daughter 6 months ago. It is a common thing to post throughout the years the ways in which our lives have changed throughout this project. As it is also the case, it is common for me to reflect on the impulse that started this whole project however long it has been now seems so far away now that I can hardly recognize that life now. I read most of this book as an e-book on my laptop while substitute teaching high school. I also read a good deal of it on my phone while holding my little baby. There were times when I wanted to set down my child and go and scream for the emotions this book welled up in me. Russo is a keen observer of human nature and a great deal of the tone and the text of this story hit very close to home for me. There were other times though that Russo wants to hammer every nail, to beat upon an obvious image so hard that I literally rolled my eyes.

Russo took great pains to develop his setting, Empire Falls. There are moments when the intersections of the characters are passing on the street and we jump in and out of different perspectives that Russo ties together beautifully true voices for each. The teenage voice isn’t his strongest, but it is still true to form. I interact with teenagers on a daily basis, and I don’t think even the artsy-est of them are as complicated as he paints. The most accurate window into the life of a teenager in this book is the perspective of the father, Miles, as he watches is daughter move through the novel. The title of the book unfortunately for me though is one of the nails Russo hammers relentlessly throughout the novel and at times it seems too much like an allegory for me. Russo shows us the nature of the transition of American life from production economy to whatever it is we are in now through the pains of a small town which I love and know to be true as well. Then he shows the fall of the empire of a family dynasty which may be true of New England more so than many other places in America, but still true to form for the setting. But most germane to the title and theme of the work is the fall of Francine Whiting, Jimmy Minty, and in someways the aloof, awkward, bumbling wandering ambition of Miles Roby.

The systematic dismantling of Miles Roby’s empire is the most interesting to me. Jimmy Minty, corrupt cop, got it handed to him in a hallmark movie sort of a way. The fall of Francine Whiting smacked of allegory in a terribly heavy handed way as well. What was so confounding to me about this story though is that Mrs. Whiting was such a cavernously deep character at times that I thought she jumped out of the pages and sat next to me and quaked at her deviousness. Then at times I thought she was treated like a Disney evil queen that got washed away in the flood of her dead husband’s design. I was glad to see her get her come-upins but the way in which it happened took me out of the reading at the time and thereby disappointed me. The fall of Miles Roby who seemed to need no such fall was one of those gritty corners of true fiction that is as painful as real life can be at times. The senseless trauma of Grace Roby was the hardest at truest trouble the novel conjures.

The thing I was most interested in talking about though was the shooting at the school. To my knowledge this is the only work in this collection that deals with this immense monster of American life. The blind rage of disenfranchised white male youths. Drew and I know first hand the effect that evil lays at your doorstep. I thought Russo’s treatment of this topic to be captivating and mostly true in voice. From the moment we meet John Voss, we are put on edge to see when this loaded gun will go off. The great bait and switch with Zack Minty leads us into terribly dark but ultimately avoided avenues which I also appreciated, but the one thing that I didn’t think Russo able to do was to portray the blind, circumstanceless hate that leads to the slaughter of innocence. My issue with Russo’s depiction of this event is still to closely tied to a meaningful event that disturbed me. Russo wrote this book in a world after Columbine, but before Virginia Tech or Sandy Hook or the shooting Drew and I are connected to NIU. Columbine was carried out with motivations that could still be understood though appalling they were still mildly coherent. After those shooters opened the box of limitless hate, evil no longer needed a reason to burst out in random and meaningless ways. We have not seen that represented in fiction just yet, and I don’t know how we would. I appreciated Russo’s keen eye and honesty in his portrayal of small town life and the inner workings of numerous characters that he was well acquainted with. There were moments were the novel became technicolor bright with symbolism that I thought was humorous if a bit jarring but altogether enjoyable like Miles Roby breaking the Silver Fox’s arm when he finally agrees to arm wrestle him.

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