Mention author Richard Russo and what comes to mind is his 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Empire Falls, later adapted into an HBO movie. Empire Falls embodies the best traits of American fiction. It is the story of a divorced, middle-aged man and his quest for contentment in a rundown, blue-collar town in Maine. In many ways it is the story of the impact of the decline of the manufacturing sector on the people who worked in the factories of the 20th Century.
The novel chronicles the slow decline of this New England mill town and the struggles of a rich and varied cast of characters, each one scheming in some way to reclaim a sense of personal glory and redemption.
One of Russo’s strengths as a writer is an eye for dark comedy. In an interview on the website www.failbetter.com Russo rejected the idea he is a comic writer. “I’m simply reporting on the world I observe, which is frequently hilarious. Here’s the thing. Most of what we witness in life is too complex to take in whole. Because of this we unconsciously edit what we see, select what to really record and what to ignore, which is why people who look at the same thing don’t necessarily see the same thing…Comic writers don’t so much invent funny things as strip away the distractions, the impediments to laughter.”
Speaking about Empire Falls, Russo observed, “I don’t think this book presented any ‘new’ challenges as a result of its scope. Think of it, rather, as a juggling act. The number of objects that have to be kept in the air at one time, along with the variety of their shapes and weights, is what determines the degree of difficulty.”
His newest work, Elsewhere,” is a memoir published in 2012. It focuses on his family’s struggles in caring for his mother over a long period of time.
Much of Russo’s work deals with the decline of small industrial towns and the sagging fortunes of the people left behind as they cope with the loss of dignity and purpose in life. The human suffering he writes about provides a wellspring for dark humor. In an interview on http://willowspring.ewu.edu , Russo said, “I think the best humor is related in some ways to suffering. Most of the time, if you think about them in adjacent rooms, the door adjoining suffering and humor is very often wide open, but as we get closer and closer to suffering, the doorway adjoining the rooms gets smaller and smaller and smaller, because you just can’t stand it otherwise. Or you just seem to be making bad jokes, or cruel jokes, at somebody’s expense. So it has something to do with distance, too.”
In the same interview, Russo was asked what kind of truth he is striving for in his fiction. “Well, when you reduce something it always comes out sounding…reduced. But I think it’s the truth of the human heart. It’s when Miles in Empire Falls after fighting with himself throughout his life, realizes that being a father, and a good father, to Tic, and being an adult in Empire Falls, is better than being a child, because his mother wanted him to have a different life, and he’s always in some way or other, because of her sacrifices, felt that he’s failed her and failed himself, and he’s tried to escape. That moment when he realizes, after almost losing Tic, that everything he wants is right there, that’s the truth of his heart…It’s the truth of his own experience in life.
“At the end of a book, I always want to meet at a kind of crossroads where there’s an understanding,” he said.
Russo’s novels include Mohawk, The Risk Pool, Nobody’s Fool, Straight Man, Bridge of Sighs, and That Old Cape Magic. He has also published short stories and is a screenwriter and teacher.