I recently finished this book. I enjoyed it greatly. It was mostly well-written, the story was good, the plot chugged right along, and the characters were all vivid.
I see on the cover that this novel won a Pulitzer Prize. Why?
The characters, though vivid, are one-dimensional enough for a TV mini-series, and the ending is totally predictable and makes no important points about anything.
The whole time I was reading it I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was reading a slightly more literary Stephen King novel. Russo writes with more depth and observation than King (who is concerned entirely with telling the story), but something about the writing and the characters and especially the ending kept me thinking about Stephen King.
Which is not to put down Stephen King by any means. I like Stephen King, but I would be surprised to see him up for a Pulitzer, and I doubt he is aiming for one.
In short: Good story, fun book, some depth, but why the Pulitzer Prize?
Heh. I thought no one had heard of this book, but me. I read it a couple of months ago, and I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed it.
I don’t have much in the way of a comment towards whether or not it is Pulitzer material, simply because I am a bit of a lousy judge of books. I have a tendency to like what I like, with no regard as to whether a book is considered good by any sort of proper standards. If it keeps me entertained to the end, it is a good book. Nice and simple. It works for me. I’m happy
I would have to say the most glaring strike against it’s being Pulitzer material comes not from any lack of character depth or interesting writing, but rather from the fact that 3 months later, I can barely remember a blessed thing about what actually happens. I can recall a few dribs and drabs, but not enough to put together a coherent plot summary. Essentially by my biased standards, it doesn’t stand out in my mind the way A Heart Breaking Work Of Staggering Genius or The Alchemist does, so no I don’t think it was worthy of a Pulitzer. That is not to say it was entirely undeserving either. I do recall that I enjoyed the book, and I will probably read it again just so that I can get a better grasp on what happened.
So in summary, my taste addled brain says it was a great book, but not necessarily Pulitzer material. Then again I probably couldn’t tell Pulitzer material from the text off of a sugar packet, so YMMV.
I really, really liked it, but I guess I’d agree that it’s not entirely clear (to me) why it won the prize. Maybe it’s the appeal of a small town, quiet characters, no major dramatic events–it’s a book driven by characters who seem like real people, and convoluted relationships which manage to not be melodramatic.
Lately I’ve disagreed with a lot of book prizewinners. Just picky I guess.
I’ve heard Russo’s “Nobody’s Fool” is also good. I’m contemplating making that my next book club pick.
The things that stood out the most for me about Empire Falls were 1. the quality of the writing and 2. the lack of sentimentality.
I am a huge fan of Russo because he has such a deceptively simple writing style. He has a very bare bones approach to prose. This is something I also say about Hemingway – that Hemingway’s descriptive writing is remarkable, especially because he doesn’t use any adjectives. Russo is not quite that extreme, but he’s got some of the same thing going on. There are not a lot of layers of text in this novel, because Russo is extremely talented at getting across all of his points on the face of things. To me, this doesn’t indicate a lack of complexity or depth, but rather a strength of clarity, and I’m glad the Pulitzer people agree.
I wish I had the book in front of me so I could quote a specific example, but he does this great tricky thing throughout the book where he provides the reader with just enough information to make the right conclusion about a particular plot point or character. It kept throwing me because I was expecting a plot twist – it seems more common to slip the reader enough clues to develop a certain idea, and then to say “a ha, but it’s really not what you thought it was at first!” – but Russo doesn’t mislead, which is almost a twist itself. He trusts the reader to draw the intended conclusions with what seems, at first, to be a scarcity of information. I think this is particularly brilliant because it underscores one of the themes of the novel – his characters come to trust their own perceptions.
His lack of sentimentality is more of a personal preference thing, I was very hesitant to pick up this book because the basic premise seemed like the kind of thing that would be made into a movie starring Kevin Costner about a middle aged man who is mild yet determined, gentle yet strong, softspoken yet profound, short yet tall, blah blah blah. Oh wait, I can just quote Cranky on this – “it’s a book driven by characters who seem like real people, and convoluted relationships which manage to not be melodramatic.” So yeah, that sums it up.
Don’t get me wrong. I greatly enjoyed the book and the story, and I agree that Russo’s prose is excellent. I like a writer who uses his work as an opportunity to express his observations on life, and manages to take feelings the reader never even knew he had and put them into succinct words. Russo is great at that. He is a skilled observer of human life and emotion, and I found myself impressed numerous times by how he expressed things I’d always felt but never verbalized.
But that’s why I find his characters so frustrating. They all read like they were designed for a movie. The bad guys are all really bad and the good guys are all really good. Jimmy Minty the crooked cop draws boos and hisses from the crowd every time he shows up and twists his moustache, Miles’s daughter Tick has a cute tom-boyish nickname, is intelligent and artsy and just a little bit of an outcast, but is nonetheless willowy and lovely (but not anorexic, though at times you think Russo is leading into that). And I personally found Miles to be exactly like the Kevin Costner star vehicle you describe. There’s nothing to dislike about the guy except that he’s too nice.
Then Russo sets up this school-shooting thing (which I have no problem with), and conveniently places a couple of expendable characters in the school to get shot to death.
And what is the point of the gay priest’s character? I hate to sound like the tired “anti-PC vigilantes” that I so detest, but is this character’s only reason for existence to demonstrate to Russo’s predominantly liberal readership that Miles is suitably liberal in his moral views? I realize I could be shooting from the hip with this one, so please offer any contrasting views if you have them.
Also, does anyone else see the Stephen King connection I mentioned in my first post? What is it about Russo’s story and structure that reminds me of Stephen King?
I keep trying to read Russo, really. I took a class from him as an undergrad, and everytime I run across a new book of his at the library, I try to get through it, because I really enjoyed his class. I did make it through Nobody’s Fool (the movie, by the way, premiered in the usual places and Waterville, ME).
Haven’t tried Empire Falls yet…perhaps I’ll check and see if the library has it.
Kyomara, I can completely understand that you find the characters frustrating. I think this is an issue that’s going to hit people in different ways, who knows, maybe I’ve become so worn down by living in a world with the likes of Robert James Waller and Anne Tyler that my standards for non-smarmy characters have sunk to new depths. I liked the fact that Miles was a nice guy who didn’t have tons of great things happen to him (like he didn’t meet up with a shy yet kind, caring yet determined widow at the end, or anything goofy like that). I was particularly fond of his ex-wife by the close of the book – I started off hating her, and then felt that Russo rounded out her character so nicely that I could really sympathize with some of her motivations.
And I’m sorry I forgot to comment on your Stephen King observation in my last post. I always think that one of SK’s best talents as a writer is his ability to create very believable children and young adult characters. SK often uses descriptions from the POV of several characters of different generations (and sometimes from the same character at various ages) to convey a more complex understanding of the nuances of a particular situation. I think Russo does this to some extent with Tick, and even more so in Miles’s recollections of incidents from his own childhood.
The other obvious point is that Stephen King is also fond of using a small town setting, and often lets the town function as a character in its own right, although that strikes me as a little too basic. Lots of authors set things in small towns. I will have to think more about what makes King’s and Russo’s use of the town as a framework for the story stand out.