Monday, January 30, 2006

Empire Falls by Richard Russo

I have often said that there are too many great or very good books to spend much time talking about bad or not very good ones. But today I want to talk about a not especially good book that is currently enjoying its moment of fame. The title of the book is Empire Falls, and its moment of fame is due (I think primarily) to its appearance as an HBO miniseries with an impressive cast including Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Helen Hunt, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Aiden Quinn and others. The series and/or its actors have been nominated for a number of Golden Globe awards, and I can understand the appeal of both the book and the series quite apart from the impressive cast. I openly applaud many of the messages in the book. I’ll not say much here about the miniseries except to urge readers to try the book before the film series.

Richard Russo is a fine writer; he is funny and clever, and I think he may understand some of the glaring weaknesses of men as spouses, parents, friends about as well as any male author I can think of. His male lead characters in Straight Man, Nobody’s Fool and The Risk Pool are drawn in clearly sympathetic ways, and yet each of the men seems simply befuddled by his spouse or lover; each is apparently loving but unable really to communicate or even to open up lines of communication with his loved ones, and although in some ways socially or politically astute, each seems unable really to take themselves seriously or to do anything with their awareness. There are (as I recall) also very strong women characters in each of these books, and Russo is able to make it clear that he genuinely admires them—as spouses, as parents, as people who do take themselves seriously in the world, and his male characters always seem to hope (in vain?) to learn something from these exemplary women.

Miles Roby, the lead character in Empire Falls is just such a man, and I suppose that one of the things that almost immediately irritated me about the book was the similarity between Miles and all Russo’s other well-meaning but obtuse male leads. Miles is separated from his wife whom he seems not to understand at all; he is a caring and even diligent father to his teenage daughter, but generally it seems that it is she who must take care of him. His father, a much worse husband, communicator, parent, or serious-person-in-the-world than Miles, seems in most ways simply one of the male characters from an earlier Russo novel grown into the pessimistic and ineffectual old man he was destined all along to become.

Miles’ mother, beautiful, wise, and self-sacrificing seems also to be a reincarnation of one of Russo’s earlier female characters. Whatever his father lacks in seriousness and self-discipline, his mother makes up for by seeming to have no life of her own at all. She is a mother, a wife, a provider, and she dies young—all seemingly ingredients in what Russo sees as the good woman. She has one glorious vacation on Martha’s Vinyard, even a night or two of loving and being loved (with a man whom the reader supposes she simply met there), and for this she pays, and pays, and pays.

So, having said so little good about the novel up to now, why would I review it or recommend it? Well, for one thing it is a typical but important story to tell about how small towns (as well as big cities) often die at the mercy of the rich. A small factory town in Maine, Empire Falls flourishes for a generation or two due to the success of the shirt and textile factories that operate on the river. Almost everything in the town is owned by the same family who owns the factories, and when (through whim, or boredom, or less than expected financial returns) the last factory is closed down, it is the townspeople (and not the owners) who suffer. Many simply leave, forced to pull up stakes and find work somewhere else. Those who remain struggle simply to get by, their homes (just in case they own them) not worth much, but what else are they to do? And there is always the hope that the factory will come alive again.

Miles runs a little restaurant, owned, of course, by Mrs. Whiting, the widow of the last in the line of Whitings who have made their money by buying up whatever they saw and simply holding it as a hedge against the future. A literary type by nature and the hope of his mother who has sacrificed everything so that he could go to college and escape Empire Falls, Miles and his brother make a meager living running the restaurant. Miles left college and returned to Empire Falls due to his mother’s cancer, and although he knows how much she would hate it, inertia and some distorted sort of loyalty keep him there even after she dies. Miles, too dispassionate even to be bitter, simply suffers his existence, buoyed at least slightly by his bright and wonderful daughter (who lives now with his estranged wife).

While I would not call this book a political one, nevertheless it is distinctly blue-collar, and the sympathies of the author are obviously with the townspeople and not the wealthy owners. Indeed, we find eventually that the Whitings have simply been holding onto the land, the factory, the town, because they knew that some parts would eventually be attractive to outside money. And, indeed, the factory is finally purchased by some corporation that specializes in buying and selling companies that have some valuable inventory and can in one way or another either turn a profit or serve as tax-breaks. The hopes of the town are raised to a temporary ecstasy when the factory is purchased by outside money; the few who are employed show how they will work for little, and then for less, in order to help increase profits. But, alas, the comparatively small profits to be had have never been much of an issue with the owners, and when the time comes, the inventory, the equipment, is simply sold off, and the factory sold off because of the soon to be valuable river-front land. The employees are let go without so much as a thought. And this not out of malice or intent, but simply because of the necessary blindness of corporate greed.

There is more to the book than I have mentioned; I find Russo’s fascination with religion interesting. Miles, a Catholic by birth and then by a kind of devotion to his saintly dead mother, can neither embrace Catholicism nor completely abandon it. He paints the church for free while taking a skeptical role in arguments over theology with the new priest, and I am convinced it is Russo who is doing the struggling, the questioning, wanting really to believe what he is quite sure is not true. I like also at least one of the women characters in the book, one whom I would say has occurred in other incarnations in other of his novels. The woman, a few years older than Miles, has been his heart-throb since boyhood, although Miles seems unable to act on his infatuation in any way other than comparing her goodness to his wife’s deficiencies.

Most of all, Russo is a funny man, and he creates male characters that I like to laugh at, and whom I also encounter far too often in the mirror. Indeed, he seems to know quite a lot about these men, and even something about how they might rise up out of their passive existential despair and do something. Maybe in his next novel.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Blacklist by Sara Paretsky

Just in case a reader is new to Sara Paretsky, or thinks that perhaps her allegiances have somehow changed since her last novel, her heroine, V.I. Warshawski, lets us know in the early pages of her new novel Blacklist just what she thinks of the super wealthy, even when she happens to be in their employ.
I have this idea about people who live with enormous wealth and great position—that because they get exactly what they want when and how they want it, they believe they’re entitled to privilege. And I imagine such people think the rest of us exist only at their pleasure. That means it’s all right to summon us in the middle of the night, or lie to us, or do whatever else takes their fancy at the moment, because to them our lives have no existence away from their orbit.
Tough and gritty as always, this blue collar P.I. finds herself caught up in a case that takes her back to the McCarthy hearings as well as landing her smack in the middle of the consequences of the so-called Patriot Act. No doubt in the opening lines I quoted, Paretsky has a certain president in mind as well as a number of other folks in high places.

Although I like to read the occasional mystery, it is not often that I would take the time to review one for KBOO listeners, but this novel (and Paretsky in general) is an exception to the rule. Although the novel is in many ways depressing in that it points out just how dangerous it is to be or look like an Arab in America, and just how perilous the eroding of our civil rights is at present (without even taking into the account all that we don’t know about who is looking at us, and when, and for what reason), still I find it encouraging that even mystery writers find it imperative to warn Americans of where we stand in history and what we have lost or are losing. Of course, it is no accident that Paretsky is drawing parallels between the atrocities committed by McCarthy and others during the reign of HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) and the present activities unleashed by the Patriot Act. She knows that we are quite good at spotting the dangers and immorality of the past, but not so good at removing the blinders that keep us from seeing the present. Even popular movies like Good Night and Good Luck now spotlight for us the excesses of HUAC, but what is needed (and far more dangerous) is to shine even a bit of light on the lies and obfuscations of the present.

Interesting too how similar the rhetoric can be: McCarthy and his cohorts bellowing about known communist front organizations when nothing of the sort was known, and present officials (from small town sheriffs to FBI and CIA operatives) yelling about known terrorists when they know little or nothing and tell us even less.

This novel begins innocently enough. V.I. is called to work by a rich employer who pays her a retainer to check on an allegedly abandoned mansion which seems to have suspicious lights and movement in the middle of the night. But before she knows it, she is investigating the apparent murder of a African American writer who was writing a book about a blacklisted dancer from the fifties. That the apparent murder occurred in a very rich neighborhood, and that the local authorities seem anxious to explain it away as a suicide is plenty to get Warshawski’s attention, and when the rich begin to huddle and, with the help of the authorities, to block her investigation, she is fully engaged.

Paretsky sees the near-hysteria in all levels of law enforcement since 911 and how quick officers are from all levels to shoot first and question later, to arrest first and find charges later, and to generally trample a person’s civil rights “if they don’t like his race, creed or place of national origin.”

Perhaps it will seem to some readers just too coincidental that the murder mansion and the life of a frightened, run-away Egyptian boy (a dishwasher in an exclusive Chicago high school) get intertwined, but Paretsky wants to let us know just how much she knows about HUAC, and how much more dangerous the present cessation of rights is. Even the usually fearless Vic Warshawski admits that what she would like to do is lie down and sleep for a hundred years, “Until these times of fear and brutality passed,” but what is required is not sleep but vigilance and protest. She finds out quickly that even to ask “what has happened to the right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures,” is enough to make her a suspected terrorist. Change the color of her skin or her place of birth, and she would not even be able to tell others just how much trouble she is in.

Like all of Paretsky’s novels, this is a long and complex one, and would be worth reading just for the story involved. But as a novel of the times, it is even more important and more deserving of a careful reading. Her heroine sums it up well when she is accused of not taking 911 seriously enough.

“Do you think it’s a joke, what happened in New York, what our troops are doing in Afghanistan or the Persian Gulf?” asks an angry law officer.

I looked up at him. ‘I think this is the most serious thing that has happened in my lifetime. Not just the Trade Center, but the fear we’ve unleashed on ourselves since, so we can say that the Bill of Rights doesn’t matter anymore. ... if the Bill of Rights is dead my life, my faith in America, will break.’
Finding that her files, her computer, even her Rolodex have been tampered with, she barks out, “Where the hell do you get off, harassing a citizen without probable cause?”, she gets an answer from the U.S. Attorney that she both knows and fears, “We don’t need probable cause.” All they have to do is utter the words Terrorist and Patriot in the same breath.

I should mention that besides being a fine writer of mystery novels, Paretski also holds a PhD in history and an MBA in finance. She uses all of her skills in this warning masquerading as a novel.