Empire Falls

(This column was first published in the August 16, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)

I enjoyed reading Richard Russo's earlier novels -- Mohawk, The Risk Pool, Nobody's Fool and Straight Man -- but his new Empire Falls (Alfred A. Knopf) is even better.

This is fine novel and the best thing about it, like its predecessors, is that it is about us. Although his fictional Empire Falls is in Maine, it joins the New York villages of his earlier books -- Mohawk and North Bath -- as Small Town America. If they ever make a movie of this book, as they did of Nobody's Fool (with Paul Newman in the title role), Russo's own hometown, Gloversville, would provide the perfect setting. But then so too would Warsaw and Binghamton and dozens of other upstate towns beset with closed factories and marginal lives.

Here again are the townies, the people who stayed on in the village they were brought up in or in the case of Miles Roby, the protagonist here, who were forced by family circumstances to return. Here are the drunks and former drunks, the blow-hards, the teasers and teased, the hangers-on and, of course, the old-line families who have come through hard times far better than the employees they have let go.

Russo is at his best, I think, when he portrays likeable wastrels. Two in this story are Miles's father Max and the half-mad priest, Father Tom, who offers little comfort to anyone except Max. Here are Father Tom's fellow priest and Miles observing the two ne'er-do-wells:

"'Max is the one doing most of the talking,' Miles observed in response to his friend's question about what the two old men could possibly be talking about.

"'Confessing his sins, do you think?'

"That possibility hadn't occurred to Miles, though it made immediate sense. Max was a terrible braggart, and the old priest deeply resented being barred from the confessional. The one would prove a treasure trove of stories of the very sort the other seemed to hunger for. Max's confessions would be colorful, dramatic, various and educational, lacking little save repentance, but, Miles wondered, were demented priests still vested with the power to forgive sins anyway? Max had always been blessed in his ability to pass through life without ever suffering consequences, and it'd be just like him to find a loophole now in the form of a priest willing to forgive his myriad sins without requiring contrition.

"'You may be on to something,' Miles admitted, now studying the old men more carefully. Max was talking and gesturing, the priest nodding enthusiastically.

"'Well, I wouldn't worry about it. I suspect your father is heaven-sent. Just what Tom needs.'

"'Max Roby? On a mission from God?'

"'Think about it. Tom's always been an old-school pastor. The emphasis for these guys has always been avoiding sin.'

"'That's old-fashioned?'

"Father Mark shrugged. 'To the extent you never have to come to terms with your own humanity. What wisdom would a truly blameless man have to offer us sinners? What comfort could he provide?'

"'Something tells me this isn't party-line Catholicism you're espousing here.'

"'Depends on who's throwing the party,' the other man admitted. 'You know what I mean, though. Tom's never exactly been a warm, understanding presence among his flock. Like a lot of the old-timers, he's always seen himself as an enforcer. Dirty Harry with a collar. On your knees, punk. Fifty Our Fathers and fifty Hail Marys -- and don't let me catch you even thinking about that again or I'll have to get really rough.'

"'People used to like that,' Miles pointed out. He remembered liking it himself, as a boy, thinking there was someone out there who was above it all, who knew what was right and whose job it was to see to it that you did too.

"'Maybe,' Father Mark said. 'My point is, Tom could stand some humanizing.'

"'In that case,' Miles allowed, 'he's talking to the right man.'"

But Russo also has schools down perfectly. His take on the hypocritical art teacher, Mrs. Roderigue, is dead on as is his portrayal of Miles's friend, principal Otto Meyer, Jr. Here is Otto on an unhappy errand:

"The big bottle of antacids that Otto Meyer kept in his desk drawer at school did not represent his entire stash. He kept an additional three or four rolls in the glove box of his Buick, and of course he also had a jar on his nightstand at home. Parked in front of the ramshackle house out on the old landfill road, chewing a couple of tablets in preparation for his interview with the boy's grandmother, he noted that the air was almost cold enough to bear snow.

"In another month the four o'clock mornings would begin again. On days when snow was predicted, Otto and the principals of the elementary and middle schools would be up early, groggily watching the weather channel and listening to the state weather service on the radio. By five-thirty they would have to decide whether it was too dangerous to put the buses on the road. Parents, for the most part, were eager for their kids to go to school, because otherwise they would have to figure out what to do with them. Before attending to these necessary arrangements many parents liked to call Otto Meyer Jr. at home and convey their impression that he was a fucking idiot, a lazy, no-good bastard angling for a reason to take a day off of work, as if it weren't enough he had the whole summer. If Otto was in the shower and his wife answered, they told her instead. The parents who were the angriest and most abusive on snow days were generally not the ones who had to worry about missing a day of work to attend to their children. Rather they were the same parents who signed their kids up for the free-lunch program and sent them to school inadequately clothed, but who could afford answering machines so they never had to waste time talking to principals and bill collectors.

"Actually, even these were not the worst. The very worst, Otto Meyer thought as he studied the dilapidated house, were the ones you never saw, the ones who seemed to exist only as narratives prepared by state caseworkers for files that followed kids from school to school in a feeble attempt to prepare teachers and administrators for what they were up against. According to the file he reviewed before driving over here, John Voss's parents, who'd disappeared beneath the bureaucratic radar nearly five years ago, had been small-time Portland drug dealers and habitual abusers who discovered after having children what a nuisance they could be when serious business was being transacted. When John was a little boy, it had been their habit to stuff him into a laundry bag, pull the string tight and hang him on the back of the closet door, where he could kick and scream to his heart's content. After a while he always calmed down, and then they could have some peace. The trouble with the silence was that sometimes they'd forget all about him, fall asleep and leave him hanging there all night.

"Otto did not normally think of himself as philosophically or politically confused, but after rereading this file he found himself deeply conflicted about whether or not John Voss's parents should be summarily executed, assuming they could be located. On the one hand, he had never favored capital punishment, reasoning that it didn't really solve the problem it was intended to address, but in this instance the problem it would solve -- quite elegantly, he thought -- was the disgust he felt at the idea of sharing the world with these two particular people."

And finally, I doubt seriously if anyone can beat Russo's portrayal of the pains of an adolescent's love:

"The problem was, he already was in love.

"It didn't do him any good, either, because Charlene Gardiner was a full three years out of high school and the odds of her accepting his invitation to the senior prom ranked right up there with his mother's wishful thinking about out-of-state tuition and a romance for Cindy Whiting. Still, Miles continued to hope for a miracle. During his junior year he'd taken a job as busboy at the Empire Grill so that he might be near Charlene, and during his senior year he even worked a few hours after school, three or four days a week, for the same purpose. On afternoons when he wasn't working, he talked his friend Otto Meyer into accompanying him to the restaurant for Cokes and later coffee, which they hoped might make them look older. What confused Miles enough to keep his hopes alive when he might have been more productively engaged in trying to get some other girl to like him was that Charlene Gardiner acted genuinely fond of him, despite the fact that she always had at least one boyfriend her own age or older. Being in high school, Miles had no idea there were girls in the world who might be nice to some boy who'd suffered the misfortune of falling in love with them, even when they couldn't return the favor. Charlene Gardiner was such a girl. Instead of seeing Miles's crush on her as an occasion for ridicule -- by far the most effective cure for a crush -- she managed to convey that both Miles and his infatuation were sweet. She didn't encourage him to persist in his folly, but neither could she bring herself to treat his devotion as something shabby or worthless. Mockery and contempt Miles would've understood and accepted as his due, but affection and gratitude confused him deeply. Gratitude for her kindness clouded his judgment, and the proximity she allowed him was simply too intoxicating to give up, so he convinced himself that her fondness was merely the beginning, that if given the opportunity it would metamorphose quite naturally into love. He made no connection between Charlene Gardiner's kindness to him and his own kindness to Cindy Whiting, an analogy that night have proved instructive.

"Although his dilemma deepened with each passing day -- no closer to finding a girl to ask to the prom, while inching ever nearer to having one found for him -- Miles took some slender comfort in the fact that Otto Meyer wasn't making much headway either.... Though Otto was also smitten by the charms of the beautiful Charlene Gardiner, he was not, like Miles, prone to unrealistic fantasies. Neither was he blind to the charms of girls his own age, so one gray afternoon in early February when they were sitting across from each other in a booth at the Empire Grill, he informed Miles that he'd asked a girl from their class to go to the prom with him and she'd accepted. Miles tried hard not to appear crestfallen. The girl Otto had asked, who years later would become his wife and the mother of his son, was exactly the sort Miles himself should have been looking for She was pretty, smart, shy and full of fun without knowing quite yet how to express this latent side of her personality. Neither popular nor unpopular, she wore unfashionable clothes at her mother's insistence and somehow intuited, as certain remarkable young girls will, that there were worse things than not being popular, that life was long, that she would one day have perfectly adequate breasts, that in fact there was nothing wrong with her, never mind what others seemed to think. During the days that followed Otto's bold invitation, about a dozen boys told him how lucky he was, that they'd been about to ask her themselves.

"Once he was over the shock, it was not hard for Miles to feel happy for his friend -- but Otto's unexpected announcement happened to coincide with another that same afternoon. When Charlene Gardiner stopped by their booth to refill their coffees, she accused them both of not being very observant. She then wiggled the fingers of her left hand in front of them provocatively. They were enchantingly lovely fingers and one was encircled by a tiny ring, the significance of which Miles still hadn't grasped when a motorcycle pulled up outside with a low, throaty rumble and Charlene made a beeline for the door. The young fellow on the bike -- he had longish, wind-blown hair, a leather jacket and a chin that required frequent shaving -- barely had time to unstraddle the bike before Charlene was in his arms, and then he was twirling her in the air and they could hear her whoop through the plate-glass window. Around and around the young man spun this girl that Miles would continue to long for well after she was married -- first to this biker, then to two other men -- even after he himself was married. When the twirling out in the parking lot finally stopped, it was Miles who felt dizzy."

I admit it. I am a sucker for Russo's plain, down-home folks. As I neared the end of this novel, I once again found myself reading with tears rolling down my cheeks. If a good measure of an author's power is the ability to involve the reader with his or her characters, Russo is a prizewinner.