Monday, September 18, 2006

Empire Falls, part two

Part one is here.

The scene between Tick and Mr. Meyer demonstrates several of Russo’s skills at their best. By slowing down fairly ordinary conversations and reminding us of all the thoughts behind each utterance, he renders them complex and interesting, so that even comedic banter comfortably serves a dual purpose in his novels. He’s also good at making use of the physical, but not in a blunt metaphorical way: here, Tick reminds us that high schoolers are attuned, maybe above all else, to physical difference, as her discomfort in Mr. Meyer’s presence leads her to focus on how he swallows his lies. That perceptiveness, too, is a Russo strength—he’s willing to let his characters see one another with the kind of intensity that marks real human relationships; he's also good at portraying their occasional willed blindness. He knows that, in the right circumstances, a teenager can understand as much about human behavior as an adult, but he also knows that much will always go unseen. In Mr. Meyer’s case, it’s only later, when we see him talking to Miles, who was his childhood friend, that we understand that he's essentially a good man, living with his compromises and trying to do a difficult job.

Russo’s understanding of relationships helps him avoid sentimentality: though it's always a threat in any novel so suffused with love and sympathy, Russo almost always manages to avoid it simply by being too clear-eyed about people to succumb. And that blunt, realistic understanding of family and friendship also leads to some of his funniest scenes, which vibrate with a lived familiarity. Take this one, between Miles and his aged, ne’er-do-well father, Max:
“I’ve been lucky lately,” Max said, as if there was no reason he shouldn’t be, given the general tenor of his life to this point. “I tell you I won the lottery down there in Florida?”

This was the kind of question Max loved to ask, one for which the answer was obvious to both parties, and one it was best just to ignore—a trick Miles had never mastered. “No, Dad. We haven’t spoken in six months. You didn’t know where I was. So, how could you have told me?”

“Oh, I knew where you were,” Max assured him. “Just because I’m sempty doesn’t mean I’m senile. Old men got brains too, you know.”

Mile rubbed his eyes with his knuckles. “You’re telling me you actually won the lottery?”

“Not the big one,” Max admitted. “Not all six numbers. Five out of six. Pretty good payoff, though. Over thirty thousand.”


“No, paper napkins,” Max said, holding one up. “Of course dollars, dummy.”

“You won thirty thousand dollars.”

“More. Almost thirty-two.”

“You won thirty-two thousand dollars.”

Max nodded.

“You personally won thirty-two thousand dollars.”

Max nodded, and Miles considered whether there might be yet another way to ask the same question. Usually, with Max, phraseology was crucial.

“Me and nine other guys from Captain Tony’s.” Max clarified after a healthy silence.

“You each won thirty-two thousand dollars.”

“No, we each won three thousands. Ten guys go in on a ticket, and you have to divvy up the winnings.”

Now, it was Miles’s turn to nod. Wheedling the truth out of his father was one of the few pleasures of their relationship, and Max took equal pleasure in withholding it. “How much do you have left?”

Max took out his wallet and peered inside, as if genuinely curious himself. “I got enough to buy lunch. I’m not cheap, like some people. I’m not afraid to spend money when I got it.”

Final part tomorrow.

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