Although Richard Russo believes he is "essentially a comic novelist" and his big, lively fifth novel, Empire Falls, is often very, very funny, we don't get around to discussing humor until our long telephone conversation is almost over.
"In interviews it's often this way," Russo says, bemused. "I think the darker aspect of my fiction -- or anybody's fiction -- is by its very nature somehow easier to talk about. Humor is notoriously difficult to discuss. Think about it: college literature courses almost always focus on very serious, often humorless works; they tend not to be about great comic novels or great comic writers. Even when they teach Shakespeare, they move from the comedies to the more serious and therefore more important tragedies. I reject that view completely."
Readers of such earlier Russo novels as Straight Man or Nobody's Fool will know exactly what he means. Probably no other contemporary American novelist writes as well or with such wicked, unsparing humor about working class life as Russo. He may care deeply about his characters, but he doesn't always let them off easy.
"It's no secret that in my books I'm trying to make the comic and the serious rub up against each other just as closely and uncomfortably as I can," Russo says with a chuttering laugh that sounds a bit like Richard Dreyfuss. "I want that which is hilarious and that which is heartbreaking to occupy the same territory in the book because I think they very often occupy the same territory in life, much as we try to separate them."
According to Russo, the hilarious and the heartbreaking naturally converged five or six years ago as he began the ruminations that would lead to Empire Falls. "When I began working on this book I saw a guy from my youth who just reminded me of a certain kind of male who in his later years still likes to put on a kind of lady's man air. For some reason I started dwelling on this kind of adolescent, who in his 50s or 60s is still tracking in a kind of sexual rut. And I immediately saw him as one of these guys who would be singing Perry Como. That was a small thing.
"The bigger thing was that since the shootings in Paducah, I had been thinking about the pressures that kids are under. As a father of two daughters, I had been dwelling in some sort of dark way on the question that everybody always asks after a school shooting and then promptly forgets -- why? The problem is that there are so many answers and so many sociological reasons for it. But even at its most perceptive, sociology deals in abstractions. Novels are in a unique position to explore something like this in a way that hits home. So this is a book that has a lot to do with kids and adults who somehow or other in this culture of ours never manage to grow up."
Russo's early thoughts about the book are reflected in the two poles of his narrative. There is the hilarious Walt Comeau, aka "The Silver Fox," a barroom blowhard who aspires to a health club empire that reaches from Empire Falls, Maine, to, well, at least as far away as Massachusetts. And there is the quiet, talented, deeply troubled teenager John Voss, a character who seems drawn directly from recent headlines.
"Unfortunately, this book is timely," Russo says, commenting on some of the more chilling aspects of his portrait of Voss. "I think a lot of what is going on with kids who get pushed too far and attempt either murder or suicide is that they are trying to deal with their own non-existence for the people who are supposed to care most for them."
If John Voss and Walt Comeau represent the extremes of the fictional world of Empire Falls, Miles Roby is at its center. Roby is the manager of the Empire Grill, a diner with growing culinary pretensions in the heart of Empire Falls, a dying milltown controlled by the Whiting family. As the novel opens, Miles is in the midst of a divorce from his wife, Janine, worried about his exceptionally bright, sensitive daughter, Tick (who befriends her odd, silent classmate, John Voss), and is seemingly paralyzed by an uncomfortable web of obligations to his less-than-responsible father, to the memory of his mother, and to his employer, Mrs. Whiting, who owns the Empire Grill, along with almost everything else in town.
Mrs. Whiting, one of Russo's most sharply drawn characters, is a study in a sort of gloved malevolence which gives the book both a spiritual and a political cast. "If there's an enduring theme in my work, it's probably the effects of class on American life," Russo says when asked about the broader meaning of Miles' difficulties with Mrs. Whiting. "If my career continues along its current arc, people will probably look at me and see a writer who is obsessed with the relationship between rich and poor and with how the rich somehow or other always manage to betray the poor, even when they don't mean to."
Of course, Russo is a novelist, not a politician or a theoretician, so his views get worked out through the messy, human interactions of his characters. Still, his choice of subject seems to put him somewhat at odds with much of contemporary writing. Like his other books, Empire Falls is a big novel with lots of characters and wide-ranging perspectives. It also focuses on an America that now seems to be out of the mainstream.
Says Russo, "My books are elegiac in the sense that they're odes to a nation that even I sometimes think may not exist anymore except in my memory and my imagination. I find that by ignoring a lot of American culture you can write more interesting stories. Unfortunately, if you were writing about America as it is, you'd be writing about a lot of people sitting in front of television sets. My best sense is to ignore much of what is going on in the culture at large and to focus on some of the things that are still of interest to me."
Luckily, a good many readers seem to be interested as well. Since he collaborated on the film version of Nobody's Fool, which starred Paul Newman, Russo has seen a resurgence of interest in his novels and the rise of a parallel career as a screenwriter. He now divides his time between writing fiction and writing for the movies.
Freed from the need to support his family by teaching, Russo seems to have entered a remarkably productive period of his life.
"I suppose all writers worry about the well running dry," Russo says at the end of our conversation, "but it hasn't been a problem to this point. I don't think there's a shortage of material in the world. Or in my head. I just pray for continued good health, because I've got other stories to tell."
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.
Author photo by Marion Ettlinger.