Calling it “one of the finest novels of recent years,” Ted Gioia nominates Richard Russo’s novel Empire Falls for the new canon. I agree, and would go one step further. Russo’s 2001 chronicle of a small town in Maine is easily one of the five best American novels from the Twenty Oughts. (What is this decade’s handle?)
Since Gioia summarizes the plot, I am thankfully relieved of that duty. Instead, I’d like to glance at an aspect of the novel that Gioia neglects—its Catholicism. Although I have no rights in the matter, being neither Catholic nor close to one, I have long believed that Russo is—after the deaths of Walker Percy in 1990 and Paul Horgan in 1995—perhaps the leading Catholic novelist in America today. Although his fiction is realistic, Russo is not merely a literary realist, a fifth-generation descendant of Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis. Like theirs, his realism grows out of an innermost familiarity with small towns, but unlike theirs it takes flight, not upon a wind of revolt, but from acceptance of the lives he finds there. Russo’s fiction is grounded upon the deeply Catholic conviction that the world as it really is—the heavens and earth created by God—deserve the novelist’s deepest respect and closest attention. He is not interested in creating an alternative reality, because he is not interested in exhibiting his creative powers and thus confining himself to them. His sensibility, in George Weigel’s phrase, is “an unmistakably Catholic sensibility: a sacramental sensibility convinced that the ordinary things of this world are the vehicles of grace and the materials of a divinely scripted drama.”
What makes this assertion all the more arresting is that Russo is pretty clearly a lapsed Catholic—a “cradle Catholic,” but no longer practicing. Yet the Catholic theme of Empire Falls is made explicit early on. In the few hours that he can spare from the Empire Grill and his daughter Tick, Miles Roby paints St. Catherine’s Church (“St. Cat’s,” as he calls it fondly). While he still attends Mass there with regularity, he is no longer a militant believer. He prefers “the notion of an all-loving God to that of an all-knowing one.” As they contemplate the church steeple that Miles is about to paint, Father Mark remarks that he “used to think God actually lived up there.” “I was just thinking how far away it is,” Miles replies. He is comforted by the idea of God’s solicitous remoteness:
As his daughter points out, everyone in Empire Falls has a secret except for Miles. He is something like the town’s confessor. Where Henry James would have put the “centre of consciousness,” Russo has installed a figure of great stillness and release from striving, who is peacefully at home in the decaying paper-mill town by the polluted Knox River. Charlene, the Grill’s buxom “full service waitress” whom he desires (without taking any steps to fulfill his desire), calls him “a good man, straight and true”; his ex-wife Janine calls him an “enabler.” The truth is that he displays what Sally Fitzgerald, meditating upon a passage by Jacques Maritain, called Flannery O’Connor’s “habit of being.” Despite his failures—he dropped out of college to return home and manage a diner that he does not even own, his wife has left him for a middle-aged fitness guru—Miles has raised the level of his moral existence through the sustained and practically unseen exercise of a quiet will. He is a good man, not because he checks himself constantly against a moral code, but because he has thoroughly internalized his virtue. He doesn’t even think about it, although everyone else in town is fully aware of it.
Empire Falls is not about Miles, though. He is merely the “enabler” of the novel’s action, which occurs because his presence testifies to the reality of grace. One day, for example, he decides to scrape the old paint off the south face of St. Cat’s, even though he has only about an hour’s worth of painting left on the west face. It is, he decides, “more satisfying to be peeling something away, creating ugliness before restoring beauty.” (That’s also the history of the town in a phrase, come to think of it.) After scraping the entire wall, Miles climbs the ladder to the steeple as darkness falls:
Few other American writers, living or dead, have believed as strongly as Richard Russo that the ordinary things of this world, perceived in their ordinariness, are worthy of close attention and perhaps are even redemptive.