Part one is here. Part two is here.
For about three hundred and fifty pages, Empire Falls is composed of scenes that conversation between Miles and his father: a series of back-and-forth dealings within a large cast of well-drawn characters. Some characters are more convincing than others, some more fully imagined, but taken as a whole, they’re believable and interesting. Four-fifths of the way through the book, however, Russo makes a big mistake, as a plot that he’s been slowly building in the background erupts.
I won’t say anything specific about it, because it’s at least somewhat surprising, but it completely derails the book. I’m sure if I talked with Russo about it, he’d say that was his point—the unexpected happens in people’s lives, and he’s trying to show that. But I think he’s made a bad decision in this case: in order to make his point, he sacrifices everything he’s built up to that moment. Interesting characters with their own stories are left by the wayside; open questions about some of the people we’ve come to know are not only left unanswered (which would be fine with me, because in life we don’t always get answers) but are, it seems, forgotten in the rush of events. And after the dust clears, the resolutions of the few stories that are left seem almost perfunctory, as if all Russo’s energy was used up in those few moments that turned the book around.
All that is an even bigger letdown because one of the things that most impressed me about his best novel, Nobody’s Fool (1993) was the sense it communicated of being a true, nearly random slice of its characters’ lives. We were looking at a representative sample of their existences, and the choice of beginning and end points wasn’t being driven by the need to follow events to their conclusion. To tell a story that is captivating, while retaining that sense of ordinariness, is a tremendous achievement—and I can think of very few writers, Penelope Fitzgerald being one, who are capable of it. So to see Empire Falls be essentially crushed by the weight of its plot was extremely disappointing.
The failed ending doesn’t make Empire Falls worthless, though Russo’s characters are too interesting, his writing too perceptive for that. If you’ve enjoyed the two scenes I’ve presented here, you’ll probably enjoy Russo, and Empire Falls. But start with Nobody’s Fool. You won’t be disappointed.
Oh, and before I end this post, I have a question: does anyone have suggestions for me about other people who are currently writing about contemporary American life with Russo’s understanding, intricacy of character, and sympathy? In particular, are there any women writers you’d recommend? In writing this blog, I’ve realized that most of the female writers I read are long dead. I fear that I’ve fallen victim to the marketing of contemporary American women’s writing—but in reverse: I see covers clearly designed to appeal to the two-thirds of the novel-buying public that are women, and I pass right over them, assuming they’re a meld of romance, Oprah-style self-discovery, and soap operas. And that’s silly and unfair; I’m sure there’s some good fiction I’m missing through my knee-jerk response. If anyone has any suggestions of where I should start, I’d love to hear them.