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Is Russo's 'Empire Falls' an American classic?

July 23, 2002|by MATT GOLLER

From time to time, we'll offer reviews of books to spend some time with. Here's a review by a North Hagerstown High graduate. If you'd like to write a book review, check out this one, then call Lifestyle editor Ginny Fite, 301-733-5131, ext. 2340.

Are you searching for a good human-experience novel? Or just something to occupy your mind at the beach or pool?

Those of you who want to read but aren't sure what may wish to consider reading "Empire Falls." The book is a Pulitzer-prize winning work of dramatic fiction by Richard Russo.

"Empire Falls" is designed to illuminate, frustrate and humor its reader by crafting a tale about a working class town in Maine suffering from long-term dilapidation.

The story's main character is a man named Miles Roby. He is a middle-aged, ordinary man stunningly similar to the downtrodden, plod-along tragic hero Winston Smith of George Orwell's 1984. He is a kind soul who is trapped in his own existence like a hamster in an exercise wheel - a metaphor that is apt enough for most of the 22 characters in the book.

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Russo creates a character the exact opposite of Miles in Mrs. Whiting. She is an old widow who owns most of the land and businesses in Empire Falls, including the Empire Grill where Miles works. Intelligent and critical, she loves to pick on Mile's shortcomings.

Miles represents the deepest characterization in the book, while Mrs. Whiting represents the extent of the author's characterization powers. The book's primary strength is developing characters, to the point where they become so familiar and visible in the mind that it is possible to predict what they will say next.

Between these extremes is Tick, Roby's daughter, a high school sophomore, who bears the weight of her parents' divorce as she does the weight of her backpack.

The characters' feelings and thoughts guide the book's plot more so than important circumstances. This makes for an interesting style that can be good and bad.

If you like slower, intellectual story-telling then the style will please you. If you like a little more action, you may get impatient waiting for the climactic moment that seems forever building.

The climax of the story is very near the end. It is shocking and disturbing, but once it happens you may feel like you knew all along what would happen because of the development of the characters.

"Empire Falls" is a book that is recommendable, but with caution. It is not an uplifting novel, and even the strongest optimist in the world would find it hard to make a case that the book is inspiring. I will be truthful in saying that I am surprised it won a Pulitzer Prize, the highest award for literature in the U.S. It is good, but I can't imagine it is really the absolute best fiction book from 2001.

Fans of creative language, ironic humor, intricate characters and impressive use of flashback should definitely check this book out. But if you like fast-action tales and multiple, inter-weaving plot lines, then you may very well find the book tedious. The jury's verdict on Empire Falls: take it out from the library first. If you like it a lot, it could add to or start an American-classics collection.

Matt Goller graduated from North Hagerstown High School in June and will attend the University of Maryland at College Park in the fall.

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