Monday, September 18, 2006

Empire Falls, part one

Richard Russo is an extremely good writer, good enough that I’m not sure there’s any novelist who’s next book I’m more looking forward to. He writes about small, dying New England towns and the people who are stuck there, with a perceptiveness and clear-eyed sympathy that are breathtaking. His main characters tend to be middle-aged men who have, through a combination of bad luck and their own weakness, wound up in a dead-end job, surrounded by one poorly resolved relationship (with, say, an ex-wife) after another (with, say, a brother or father). But these men haven’t been beaten down by circumstance—instead, they and those around them are vibrantly alive, channeling their frustrations into hard work, some drinking, and pointless (but frequently very funny) banter.

Whereas Raymond Carver portrayed the lives of the lower socio-economic classes with an arid, bleak despair that I frequently find falls somewhere between false and condescending, Russo understands what was always apparent to me growing up in a small town: a lot of people in all situations take life as it comes—some of them with biting humor, others by being pricks, some by dreaming impossible dreams, others by constantly reminding themselves to be satisfied with what they’ve got. And self-awareness is found at all levels of education and income, just like self-absorbedness. That variety of character and response, allied to a deep understanding of how people relate to friends, relatives, and rivals, is what makes Russo’s books compelling.

Last week I read his most recent novel, Empire Falls (2001), and to give you an idea of how Russo gets into the heads of his characters—as they, frequently, are attempting to do the same to other characters—I’m going to quote at greater length than usual. In this scene, Tick, the teenage daughter of Miles, the book’s protagonist, is talking with her high school principal. Due to a scheduling problem, she’s for a few months been lunching alone in the cafeteria at an off period, which, because she’s shy and not that popular, has suited her fine.
“I’ve found someone to have lunch with you,” Mr. Meyer reports once the door is safely shut between them. Tick can’t help but stare at him. The fundamental dishonesty of adults never fails to amaze her, their assumption that you’ll believe whatever they say just because they’re grown-ups and you’re a kid. As if the history of adults’ dealings with adolescents were one long, unbroken continuum of truth-telling. As if no kid was ever given a reason to distrust anyone over the age of twenty-five. In this instance Mr. Meyer would apparently have Tick believe that in the two weeks since allowing this solitary lunch privilege, he’s been thinking of nothing except finding her a companion. Whereas Tick doubts that she’s crossed his mind until provoked by the larger problem of what to do with this wretched boy, who by virtue of being friendless, voiceless and graceless has become the target of lunchroom bullies who consider it fine sport to hit him in the back of the head with empty milk containers, broken pencils, thumb-shot rubber bands and any other handy missile, launching these objects from all the way across the cafeteria for maximum impact.

Tick’s strategy for dealing with lying adults is to say nothing and watch the lies swell and constrict in their throats. When this happens, the lie takes on a physical life of its own and must be either expelled or swallowed. Most adults prefer to expel untruths with little burplike coughs behind their hands, while others chuckle or snort or make barking sounds. When Mr. Meyer’s Adam’s apple bob once, Tick sees that he’s a swallower, and that this particular lie has gone south down his esophagus and into his stomach. According to her father, who’s an old friend of Mr. Meyer’s, the man suffers from bleeding ulcers. Tick can see why. She imagines all the lies a man in his position would have to tell, how they must just churn away down there in his intestines like chunks of undigestible food awaiting elimination. By their very nature, Tick suspects, lies seek open air. They don’t like being confined in dark, cramped places. Still, she likes Mr. Meyer better for being a swallower. Her father, who neither lies often nor well, at least by adult standards, is also a swallower, and she approves that his lies go down so painfully. . . .

“John has the same scheduling difficulty you had because of a class,” Mr. Meyer continues, studying her to see how this second lie will play, his Adam’s apple bobbing again. John Voss has no such scheduling difficulty, Tick knows. Except for computer studies, at which the boy is reportedly brilliant, he in all low-track classes, and art fits this program like a glove.

When Tick remains silent, Mr. Meyer breaks into a nervous sweat. What is this—two comatose kids? If coming to the aid of floundering liars weren’t against Tick’s religion, she’d be tempted to toss him a rope. . . .

“Actually, I have a favor to ask you, Christina,” Mr. Meyer continues, his Adam’s apple stationary now, so this part of it must be true. He nods at the door. “John Voss is a very unhappy boy. More unhappy than anyone suspects, I fear.”

He’s lowered his voice another notch, perhaps worried that the unhappy boy might find out about his unhappiness and be unhappier still. “There is an element in our school that finds in this unfortunate young man an excellent candidate for ridicule and even worse forms of cruelty.”

He pauses to study Tick here, hoping maybe that she’ll contradict him by testifying that no such element exists. About this, he would very much like to be wrong. “We have a good school here,” he quickly adds, as if fearful that his criticism has gone too far. “But not everyone . . . ” As his voice trails off, his Adam’s apple starts bobbing again, confirming Tick’s belief that omissions, too, can be lies, perhaps the most dangerous ones.

More tomorrow.

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