Monday, September 14, 2009

Cannonball Read #44: Empire Falls, by Richard Russo

My Dad really likes diners. Genetics are strong in our family. That's pretty much all of what brought me to pick up Empire Falls, and MAN am I glad I did.

About eighty percent of Empire Falls is a still life. It tells the story of a town rooted in grand industrialism eventually brought down by hubris and some deep brokenness in the family that founded it, and of the life that has flourished in the ruin of the old factories. The people who wander in and out of life at the Empire Grill are superbly average. You know all of them; it's the Office Space of small towns. Miles Roby runs the Empire Grill and the Grill runs him, and he spends his days allowing people to run over him again and again. No matter how easygoing you are, you can't take abuse from everyone in your life forever. Miles adores his teenage daughter, and when she is threatened both by the idea of staying in Empire Falls forever and by a shocking event in town, Miles is pressed into drastic action that will rework his entire life.

Richard Russo is a masterful writer. His descriptions just sing of the glories of dirty, grimy small town life. Were it not for his lovely prose, this approach to this story would drag horribly. Instead, we are left to enjoy richly developed characters and brilliant little details that make the setting tangible and real. The best part of this slow, skillful development is that the eventual shock of the book's climax feels just as crisis in a small town truly does. Russo banks on real emotion here, and that is damn hard to do in a long novel that spends much of its time without movement.

I read this in summer, and much of the story takes place in summer, but for some reason I feel like it would be a wonderful read for Christmastime. It's full of the warmth of family and the way community makes us who we are for better or for worse. All the things that the holidays are about are in this book. That being said, it really should be on your Must Read List regardless of when you get to it.

496 pages

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