Comfort people

Richard Russo’s latest novel, Empire Falls, offers an inexpensive summer getaway to folks who can’t afford to travel and cheap entertainment to those lacking weird relatives and exposure to small town life. In a strangely endearing way, the story takes on the feel of a letter from home written to the descendants of a nuclear family whose members never had an aged auntie lecturing them about the relationship between power and will.

To folks fat with frequent-flyer miles, who are seriously damn happy that most of North America separates them from their nearest kin, Empire Falls still offers a chance to laugh your ass off.

An inveterate tour guide of our less attractive selves, Russo provides a cinematic view of small-town life in decline, dishing up a healthy portion of local dirt that spans three generations while solidifying the cornerstone of his success—a passion for picturesque narration matched only by intimacy in characterization. The author brings soft lighting to this scene of class limitations and post-industrial environmental crisis by making us feel a close bond to his pathetically funny characters—characters we have known and possibly lived with.

The town of Empire Falls itself is a turn-of-the-century success story in which the buzz of industry has fallen to the muffle of quiet desperation as despair washes over the middle class in the wake of worldwide techno-corporatization. “They stayed,” Russo says, “many of them, because staying was easier and less scary than leaving.”

Russo has a talent for simple stories that just barely hint at sophistication. Championing the ordinary, the novel is a celebration of the middle-class with its myths so difficult to take seriously, yet so difficult to deny. Like an uncle who tells embarrassing tales of your youth, the people of Empire Falls remind us of another way of looking at the world we like to think we’ve outgrown. According to Russo, “Class as a kind of ideology has disappeared from the lexicon in the last decade or two.”

In spite of their less than glamorous lifestyles, there are no victims in the book (another word missing from our lexicon these last few decades?). However, everyone in Empire Falls has at least one family member that is a public embarrassment or private demon. The family album in this story includes:

A father who funds his next road trip by convincing the town’s long-senile priest to lift the contents of the collection plates and hijack the church’s station wagon to the Florida keys, where the renegade priest hears tourists’ confessions and dispenses penance from the dark end of a bar.

A brother who is saved from fatal injuries and cured of alcohol addiction when he is thrown from his vehicle only to hang overnight suspended in a tree by his hunting vest.

A daughter, coping with her estranged parents’ stupidity and the stigma of being a “nice kid,” who is coerced by the principal into befriending the school sociopath before he goes on a homeroom shooting spree.

Empire Falls entices the reader with a precise vision of interwoven simplicity. Life in a place without freeway offramps, where “people can’t escape each other.” A place where the sight of limousines might insight dreams of civic rejuvenation, rather than represent a prom accessory. A place where things are exactly as they seem depending on how you look at them.

In the security of this simple microcosm, we readers can examine our own realities through the lenses of lives we may have run from, backgrounds we may wish to deny, and a sense of country comfort that we may have come to recognize only in fiction.