Richard Russo Russo, Richard - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Richard Russo 1949-

American novelist, screenwriter, and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Russo's career through 2002.

Awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for the novel Empire Falls (2001), Russo is noted for his evocative depictions of blue-collar life in depressed Northeastern towns and the struggles of emotionally scarred sons to come to terms with absent or abusive father figures. In Mohawk (1986), The Risk Pool (1988), and Nobody's Fool (1993), all set in rural upstate New York, Russo presents large casts of realistic, often eccentric characters—worn-out shopkeepers and odd-jobbers, alcoholics, invalids, rogues, and ne'er-do-wells—whose tragicomic lives are emblematic of the dignity and insular depravity of decaying rust-belt towns. Russo has also earned distinction for his comic academic novel, Straight Man (1997), as well as coauthoring the screenplay for the Hollywood film Twilight (1998).

Biographical Information

Born in Johnstown, New York, to James W. Russo and Jean Findlay Russo, Russo grew up in the small, upstate New York town of Gloversville. His father, a construction worker, left the family when Russo was young. Russo studied English at the University of Arizona, earning his bachelor's degree in 1971 and completing a doctorate in American literature in 1980. While working on his dissertation, Russo realized that he wanted to write fiction rather than academic nonfiction. He spent a year working on his fiction writing skills while completing his dissertation and earned a master of fine arts degree in creative writing in 1981. During the summers, Russo worked as a manual laborer on construction and road crews, experiences that, coupled with his rural upbringing in the Northeast, helped shape his later fiction. Russo's 1986 debut novel, Mohawk, introduced readers to the author's central recurring theme—the plight of failing small towns in the United States and the effects of the decline on their inhabitants. Russo wrote his next novel, The Risk Pool, while his father was dying; the story is based in part on their relationship. Following the publication of two additional novels, Nobody's Fool and Straight Man, Russo collaborated with director Robert Benton on the screenplay for Twilight, a film starring Hollywood legend Paul Newman and actors Gene Hackman, James Garner, and Susan Sarandon. Newman starred in the critically acclaimed 1994 film adaptation of Russo's novel Nobody's Fool, which was also directed by Benton. Russo taught at several universities, including Southern Illinois University and Colby College in Waterville, Maine, before turning to writing full-time. He resides in Maine with his wife and two daughters. In addition to winning the Pulitzer, Russo was named a Pennsylvania Council of Arts fellow in 1983 and received the Annual Award for Fiction from the Society of Midland Authors in 1989 for The Risk Pool.

Major Works

Russo's first two novels, Mohawk and The Risk Pool, are set in the fictional town of Mohawk, located in upstate New York. Mohawk opens in 1967 as the town's once thriving leather trade business is on the wane. The novel explores the obscure relationship and long-standing animosity between two elderly leather workers, Mather Grouse and Rory Gaffney. Their rivalry is played out among Mather's daughter, grandson, and various in-laws, resulting in a botched revenge scheme against Rory and wrongful accusations of murder. Some of the minor characters from Mohawk reappear in The Risk Pool, which centers upon a complex father-son relationship. The father, Sam Hall, returns from World War II to his wife, Jenny, who quickly becomes pregnant. When their son, Ned, is born, Sam has no desire to see him and disappears for the first six years of Ned's life. Upon his father's return, Ned, who narrates the novel, spends the rest of his childhood and adolescence being shuttled between his estranged parents, the alcoholic Sam and the mentally ill Jenny. Nobody's Fool continues Russo's focus on torturous father-son relationships with the story of the Sullivan family, four generations of misfits and failures. Set in the hamlet of North Bath, a moribund locale in upstate New York, the novel centers on Donald “Sully” Sullivan, the “nobody's fool” of the title. His warm, caring relationship with his grandson, Will, lends Sully the strength to confront memories of his abusive father and, eventually, to mend relations with his son and the North Bath community. A departure from his first two novels, Straight Man is an academic satire set in Pennsylvania. The protagonist, Hank Devereaux, is a marginal English professor at West Central Pennsylvania University, a small, nondescript institution. Devereaux is elected interim chair of the department because he is considered so incompetent that he cannot possibly upset the tenuous equilibrium among the below-average but mostly tenured faculty. He surprises everyone, including himself, when he assumes leadership and attempts to rescue the jobs of his colleagues, which are threatened by draconian budget cuts from the administration.

Empire Falls, Russo's fifth novel, reprises the blue-collar world of his earlier books, and is set in a dying mill town in Maine. The title comes from the name of the town, but it also resonates with the narrative's larger theme of dissolution. Empire Falls is almost entirely owned by the powerful Whiting clan, owners of the now defunct textile mill that was the town's primary industry. The patriarch of the family, the deceased C. B. Whiting, tried in vain to change the course of the powerful Knox River that runs through the town, and throughout the novel, various attempts to change the course of nature and destiny figure prominently. The novel's protagonist, Miles Roby, forsakes a college education and a possible academic career to return to Empire Falls to care for his ailing mother. Mrs. Francine Whiting—C. B. Whiting's widow and Miles's mother's former employer—allows Miles to run the Empire Grill diner where he works for the next twenty years, abandoning his past ambitions. As the novel opens, Miles's wife, Janine, who despairs his lack of motivation, has left him for an obnoxious local health club owner and frequent patron of the Empire Grill. Miles's one hope is that his teenage daughter, Tick, will escape Empire Falls, as he once intended. The book is also narrated from Tick's point of view in present-tense chapters that chronicle her growing frustration with the adult world. At school, Tick befriends an alienated loner named John Voss, whose murky history of loss and abuse comes to a violent conclusion in the novel's denouement. The depressed atmosphere of the failing small-town is further embodied by Miles's father, Max, a shifty though amiable layabout who frequently abandoned his family during Miles's youth. Miles and Tick's present-tense narration is alternated by italicized chapters that explore the history of Empire Falls and the complicated past that binds the Roby and Whiting families. The Whore's Child and Other Stories (2002), Russo's first collection of short fiction, features seven stories—two of which deal with the familiar blue-collar world of Russo's novels, while three feature academic settings reminiscent of Straight Man. The title story follows a Belgian nun who audits a creative writing class, bares her soul in a sordid memoir, and then is discomfited when her work is reinterpreted by the class. “Joy Ride” tells the story of a mother fleeing from her husband with her teenage son in tow; “Poison” is about the reunion of a pair of fifty-something writers; “The Farther You Go” presents an oddly sympathetic abusive husband; and “Monhegan Light” features a cinematographer who confronts his late wife's lover.

Critical Reception

Russo has been consistently praised for his ability to sketch vivid portraits of hardscrabble working-class life in the blighted small towns of the American Northeast. Though his prose has been routinely regarded as competent and lucid, it has been his characterizations and mix of deadpan humor and knowing compassion that have earned him special distinction. Critics have noted that the broad scope and sprawling casts of characters of his novels display Russo's affinity for nineteenth-century authors, most notably Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. However, almost all of Russo's works have been criticized for excessive length, which some reviewers have argued weaken his numerous characterizations and circuitous subplots. Despite such claims, most commentators have insisted that Russo's narratives are rarely boring, but that his tendency to overwrite results in unnecessary repetitions and predictability. Others have objected to the recurring elements of sentimentality and melodrama in Russo's work, particularly in the conclusions of Mohawk and Empire Falls. Some critics have disagreed with this assertion, instead praising Russo's willingness to sublimate style to portraiture and to celebrate humanity through the lives of ordinary people living in small communities. While The Risk Pool has drawn acclaim for its gritty realism, Nobody's Fool and Straight Man have been lauded for their sharp comedy and deft characterizations. Empire Falls, considered Russo's most ambitious and mature work to date, has been widely praised for its rich multigenerational story, engaging characters, and bittersweet emotional themes. Russo's short fiction in The Whore's Child and Other Stories has been similarly well-received, with reviewers admiring the author's eye for detail and mordant wit.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mohawk (novel) 1986

The Risk Pool (novel) 1988

Nobody's Fool (novel) 1993

Straight Man (novel) 1997

Twilight [with Robert Benton] (screenplay) 1998

Empire Falls (novel) 2001

The Whore's Child and Other Stories (short stories) 2002

David Montrose (review date 6 March 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Montrose, David. “Fightin' an' Feudin'.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4379 (6 March 1987): 246.

[In the following excerpt, Montrose praises Russo's structure and characterization in Mohawk, but faults the novel for elements of melodrama and excessive length.]

Small-town USA (North-eastern variety) is the milieu for each of these first novels. Richard Russo's Mohawk is a declining leather town in upstate New York, Cathie Pelletier's Mattagash a lumber town whose rusticity and isolation are exceptional even by the standards of backwoods Maine. The similarities do not end there. Both novels are preoccupied with ties of blood and emotion....

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Richard Eder (review date 13 September 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Sticking around with Dad.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (13 September 1988): 3, 8.

[In the following review, Eder comments that, despite the novel's “impeccable” realism, the weak protagonist in The Risk Pool ultimately makes the novel a “bore.”]

The American archetype, the loner, the cowboy, the man who rides into town, gives it a clout or two and rides off into the sunset: His virtue, above all, is to ride off.

He doesn't stick around. Around, he wouldn't be interesting. Around, he would be a pest.

For around, in life and fiction, we need another kind of character: one who works...

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Hilma Wolitzer (review date 30 October 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wolitzer, Hilma. “Richard Russo's Tale of a Reckless Father and a Sensitive Son.” Chicago Tribune Books (30 October 1988): 1.

[In the following review, Wolitzer compliments Russo's “remarkable fix on blue-collar life in small-town America” in The Risk Pool but criticizes the novel for underdeveloped female characters.]

As he clearly demonstrated in Mohawk, his fine first novel, Richard Russo has a remarkable fix on blue-collar life in small-town America. His second novel also takes place in fictive Mohawk, in upstate New York, and has some of the same peripheral characters. Once again, Russo brilliantly evokes the economic and emotional...

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James McConkey (review date 27 November 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McConkey, James. “Life with Father and Son.” Washington Post Book World 18, no. 48 (27 November 1988): 7.

[In the following review, McConkey argues that the “great triumph” of The Risk Pool lies in the novel's complex father-son relationship.]

Richard Russo's second novel returns us to the locale of his first, Mohawk (1986)—Mohawk being the name he gives that northern New York town peopled with characters of his imagination but apparently based on the actual Gloversville.

The Risk Pool is less a sequel than a palimpsest of that highly praised first novel. The two books chronicle much of the same time span, and a...

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Betty Abel (review date April 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Abel, Betty. “Quarterly Fiction Review.” Contemporary Review 254, no. 1479 (April 1989): 213-16.

[In the following excerpt, Abel offers a positive assessment of The Risk Pool, calling Russo's prose “witty, easy and nostalgic in tone.”]

Richard Russo's novel The Risk Pool, is another American work that has crossed the Atlantic with every chance of success. Russo achieved fame first with his book entitled Mohawk, a moving love story set in an imaginary New York town. In The Risk Pool Richard Russo returns to Mohawk to unfold the further tale of thirty years in the hell-raising life of Sam Hall. Hall returns from World War II,...

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John Clute (review date 9-15 June 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Clute, John. “Talk of the Town.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4497 (9-15 June 1989): 634.

[In the following review, Clute asserts that Russo's themes in The Risk Pool are ultimately rewarding though the narrative can be meandering and overlong.]

Those who finish The Risk Pool will fully earn any pleasures Richard Russo may have to offer in this, his second novel about life in the small decaying industrial city of Mohawk, sunk in its worn-down valley some miles upriver from Albany, New York. Russo is not an author to worry about inflicting longueurs on his readers, and in Ned Hall he has found an ideal protagonist for the relentless...

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E. Annie Proulx (review date 30 May 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Proulx, E. Annie. “What It Takes to Endure the Lost, Stubborn Citizens of Richard Russo's Upstate New York.” Chicago Tribune Books (30 May 1993): 1.

[In the following review, Proulx lauds Russo's comedic prose in Nobody's Fool, noting Russo's recurring examination of child-parent relationships.]

If ever time travel is invented, let Richard Russo be first through the machine to bring back a true account. No one writing today catches the detail of life with such stunning accuracy.

Russo's third novel, Nobody's Fool, is a rude, comic, harsh, galloping story of four generations of small-town losers, the best literary portrait of...

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Howard Frank Mosher (review date 6 June 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mosher, Howard Frank. “The Strife of Bath.” Washington Post Book World 23, no. 23 (6 June 1993): 8.

[In the following review, Mosher praises Russo's deft portrayal of small-town American life in Nobody's Fool, arguing that the novel contains “some of the most darkly yet genuinely funny scenes I've encountered in any recent fiction.”]

“This town will never change,” the proprietor of Hattie's Diner bleakly observes of the decayed old Adirondack resort village of Bath, toward the end of Richard Russo's superb new novel [Nobody's Fool]. On the surface, at least, this assessment seems irrefutable. After all, the mineral springs from which...

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Wendy Smith (essay date 7 June 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Smith, Wendy. “Richard Russo: The Novelist Again Explores the Crucial Impact of Place on Individual Destinies.” Publishers Weekly 240, no. 23 (7 June 1993): 43-4.

[In the following essay, Smith provides an overview of Russo's fiction, publishing history, and literary concerns, including Russo's own comments on his career and work.]

The Old Port section of Portland, Maine, where Richard Russo takes PW [Publishers Weekly] to lunch, is not a place where the author's characters would feel at home. Although Portland suffered a postwar decline not unlike the one that befell Russo's fictional upstate New York town of Mohawk, Old Port has since been...

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Gail Caldwell (review date 27 June 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Caldwell, Gail. “The Last Resort.” Boston Globe (27 June 1993): 94, 96.

[In the following review of Nobody's Fool, Caldwell praises Russo's narrative skill and literary vision but finds the novel excessively lengthy and repetitious.]

With his infinite winters and unreflective townfolk, Richard Russo is a master craftsman at broken-pipe realism. He has an anachronistic fondness for sprawling, ordinary life, and his characters are etched large by this grainy intimacy—by the close-focus detail of work endured, love lost, another day gone the way of cruel oblivion. All three of his novels are set in half-defeated hamlets in upstate New York, where...

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Roz Kaveney (review date 30 July 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kaveney, Roz. “Bonds Men.” New Statesman and Society 6, no. 263 (30 July 1993): 39-40.

[In the following review, Kaveney commends Russo's “ear for social ritual and the comedy that goes with it” in Nobody's Fool but laments the novel's occasionally stereotypical characterizations.]

Early in this likeable, if blokeish, novel of American small-town life, [Nobody's Fool,] crippled reprobate Sully fails to recognise the source of the quotation (“We wear the chains we forge in life”) of which his former English teacher—Miss Beryl, now his landlady—is so fond. Since Russo makes a point of highlighting it at the beginning and end of the...

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Steve Brzezinski (review date winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brzezinski, Steve. Review of Nobody's Fool, by Richard Russo. Antioch Review 52, no. 1 (winter 1994): 173-74.

[In the following review, Brzezinski commends the ambitious scope of the narrative in Nobody's Fool.]

Russo's third novel [Nobody's Fool] is an ambitious look at two topics currently out of favor in American literature: class and small-town America. Though the book is too long by at least 200 pages, it is peopled with extraordinarily well-drawn characters, most of them either poor and struggling or rich and bumbling, whose inevitable mistakes and missteps are chronicled in an excruciatingly comic yet deeply compassionate narrative. Russo's...

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M. R. Montgomery (essay date 26 January 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Montgomery, M. R. “The Brains behind Nobody's Fool.Boston Globe (26 January 1995): 49, 52.

[In the following essay, Montgomery provides an overview of Russo's life, career, and literary concerns and discusses Russo's work on the film adaptation of Nobody's Fool.]

Richard Russo, novelist (three published to glowing reviews), educator (much-admired teacher of creative writing at Colby College) and seriously competitive racquetball player at the Waterville Downtown Athletic Club in Maine, is becoming a Famous Writer thanks to a movie. Thanks to the Paul Newman and Jessica Tandy movie, Nobody's Fool, now showing at your local theater and already...

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Scott Bradfield (review date 25 July 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bradfield, Scott. “Department Wars.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4921 (25 July 1997): 23.

[In the following review, Bradfield judges Straight Man to be a humorous but flawed novel.]

Hank Devereaux, the protagonist of Richard Russo's funny and clever novel, [Straight Man,] is a professor of creative writing, hiding out in the below-par English Department of West Central Pennsylvania University, and he doesn't think he belongs anywhere better. About to turn fifty, he hasn't written a book in the twenty years since he received tenure, and he has been elected Department Chair solely because he is the sort of “militant procedural...

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Zoë Ingalls (essay date 8 August 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ingalls, Zoë. “A Novelist Finds Humor in Academic Woes.” Chronicle of Higher Education 43, no. 48 (8 August 1997): B8-B9.

[In the following essay, Ingalls discusses the publication of Straight Man and Russo's use of his own experiences in the academic world as fictional material.]

Richard Russo says his first attempt to write fiction wasn't just unsuccessful, “it was wretched.” You can picture him holding his nose at the other end of the phone. He's in Denver, on the first leg of a three-week, cross-country tour to promote his fourth and latest novel, Straight Man.

“It was not only bad,” he continues. “Almost...

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Thomas Curwen (review date 21 September 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Curwen, Thomas. “Just Joking.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (21 September 1997): 8.

[In the following review, Curwen praises Straight Man as “a thoroughly irreverent, masterful satire of American life, circa 1997.”]

Just shy of his 50th birthday, William Henry Devereaux Jr., the wise-cracking interim head of the English department at West Central Pennsylvania University, is about to realize that he isn't cut out for academic life. It's only taken 20 years, but what fun would an epiphany like this be if it didn't slam like a ton of bricks through the years he's lost trying to deny it?

It's April, the cruelest month, and this...

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Michael Lee (review date 26 September 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lee, Michael. Review of Straight Man, by Richard Russo. National Catholic Reporter 33, no. 41 (26 September 1997): 33.

[In the following review, Lee asserts that Russo joins the ranks of several modern authors who satirize academia—Kingsley Amis, John Barth, and Jane Smiley, among others—with the publication of Straight Man.]

No contemporary institution has felt the bite of novelistic parody and ridicule more keenly and more frequently than has academia. From Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim and John Barth's End of the Road in the 1950s to David Lodge's more recent novels and Jane Smiley's Moo, the academy has been laid bare in the comic...

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Ron Charles (review date 6 October 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Charles, Ron. “Pillorying Pretentious Professors.” Christian Science Monitor (6 October 1997): 14.

[In the following review, Charles lauds Russo's insight and wit in Straight Man, noting that the novel's satire “never slides into artifice.”]

University life has served as an irresistible subject for some of the funniest satire in modern literature.

After teaching briefly at Sarah Lawrence College, Mary McCarthy set the standard high with The Groves of Academe (1952), her acerbic satire of a liberal college for women. Just two years ago Jane Smiley, who teaches at Iowa State, lambasted a Midwestern university in Moo: A...

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Stanley Kauffmann (review date 30 March 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Love Later On.” New Republic 218, no. 13 (30 March 1998): 26-7.

[In the following excerpt, Kauffmann argues that Twilight is an ineffective attempt to counter youth-driven Hollywood movies, characterizing Robert Benton and Russo's dialogue as “laboriously smart.”]

Twilight (Paramount) is indeed crepuscular. Robert Benton, who directed and cowrote it (with Richard Russo), clearly wanted to strike a blow for his film generation in this era of teenage pleasurings. So he devised a film to star Paul Newman and Gene Hackman and James Garner and (much younger but still not young) Susan Sarandon. In 1977, Benton did The...

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Jon Saari (review date spring 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Saari, Jon. Review of Straight Man, by Richard Russo. Antioch Review 56, no. 2 (spring 1998): 240.

[In the following review, Saari praises the rich comic narrative of Straight Man.]

The running joke here is that the university is a three-ring circus of clowns and buffoons who provide an unending supply of hilarity. In the hands of Russo's William Henry Devereaux, Jr., or Lucky Hank to friends and enemies alike, the narrator [of Straight Man], life at the backwater West Central Pennsylvania University creates an unnerving anticipation of disaster. In a time of frenzy and wrath, Henry Devereaux, the interim head of the English department, finds...

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John Simon (review date 6 April 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Simon, John. “Benton in Clover, Coens in Bilge.” National Review 50, no. 6 (6 April 1998): 58-9.

[In the following review, Simon compliments Twilight as a “rare crime story that makes sense.”]

Some years ago Robert Benton, Richard Russo, and Paul Newman came up with a winner, Nobody's Fool, and here they are with another one, Twilight, directed by Benton, co-written by him and Russo, and again starring Newman. This time, though, it's a very different story, about rich, amoral people in Los Angeles, part detective thriller, part romantic triangle (sort of), part chronicle of complicated friendships and betrayals, a way-we-live-now...

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Rita D. Jacobs (review date autumn 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jacobs, Rita D. Review of Straight Man, by Richard Russo. World Literature Today 72, no. 4 (autumn 1998): 832-33.

[In the following review, Jacobs commends the “complex” and “witty” protagonist of Straight Man.]

There is no denying the voyeuristic allure of a novel set in your own backyard, or in one that very much resembles it, and peopled by your neighbors. This is certainly part of the charm of Straight Man. It is a novel of academe, and better yet, the central character is an English professor surrounded by the wondrous diversity of beleaguered souls who have also chosen that profession. But Richard Russo's work is more than merely...

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Ron Charles (review date 10 May 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Charles, Ron. “Grease Spots on the American Dream.” Christian Science Monitor (10 May 2001): 18-19.

[In the following review, Charles lauds the literary accomplishment of Empire Falls, arguing that the “history of American literature may show that Richard Russo wrote the last great novel of the 20th century.”]

The history of American literature may show that Richard Russo wrote the last great novel of the 20th century. His newly released Empire Falls holds the fading culture of small-town life in a light that's both illuminating and searing. It captures the interplay of past and present, comedy and tragedy, nation and individual in the...

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Dan Cryer (review date 27 May-2 June 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cryer, Dan. “Through the Mill.” Washington Post Book World 31, no. 21 (27 May-2 June 2001): 7.

[In the following review, Cryer notes Russo's skillful characterization of Miles Roby and his small-town community in Empire Falls.]

Stay with Miles Roby long enough and you can't miss the integrity, reliability, kindness and thoughtfulness that make him such a decent human being. In the short run, though, these qualities are likely to be obscured by truckloads of inertia, risk-aversion and general bloodlessness. Most folks in little Empire Falls in central Maine admire Roby, who runs the local diner, but they sense that some vital spark is missing in him. Despite...

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James Marcus (review date June 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Marcus, James. Review of Empire Falls, by Richard Russo. Atlantic Monthly 287, no. 6 (June 2001): 104.

[In the following review, Marcus praises Empire Falls as Russo's “most ambitious work to date,” but notes that the novel feels overlong.]

Richard Russo first made his reputation with a series of blue-collar novels that suggested a more antic and expansive Raymond Carver. But by the time he published Straight Man, in 1997, Russo was clearly interested in breaking new ground, and that foray into academic farce showed off his comic timing and sneaky construction to superb effect. Now comes Empire Falls, the author's most ambitious...

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D. T. Max (review date 10 June 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Max, D. T. “Expecting Failure, Finding Faith.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (10 June 2001): 17.

[In the following review of Empire Falls, Max commends the novel for its appealing style and humor but faults the work for its heavy-handed symbolism.]

Richard Russo has focused on fading Middle American towns in several of his earlier books. By now he knows his stuff. His new novel introduces the reader to the town of Empire Falls, Maine. It's been a mill town without a purpose ever since its main industry closed some 20 years ago. Its residents, still stunned, drift. “People rarely knew what they wanted,” the local bartender notes. “Despite their...

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Michael Prager (review date 27 June 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Prager, Michael. “Run-of-the-Mill? Not Empire Falls.Boston Globe (27 June 2001): D13.

[In the following review, Prager offers a positive assessment of Empire Falls, lauding Russo's “entirely natural portrayal of small-town life.”]

In the Empire Falls of Richard Russo's clever and knowing fifth novel, [Empire Falls,] the empire has all but fallen. Led by the mighty Whitings, its textile mills had powered the fictitious central Maine town for generations, but now only tatters remain.

The most visible remnants are the two old factories that stand hard by the Knox River, but there are plenty of others, including the...

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Don McCleese (review date July 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McCleese, Don. Review of Empire Falls, by Richard Russo. Book (July 2001): 63.

[In the following review, McCleese compliments Russo's balancing of comedic and tragic elements in Empire Falls.]

Writer Tom Wolfe once charged that “the American novel is dying, not of obsolescence, but of anorexia.” The remedy? “Novelists with the energy and the verve to approach America in the way her moviemakers do,” with “huge appetites and mighty, unslaked thirsts.” For a feast of social realism, the hungry reader might turn to Richard Russo's latest work, a multigenerational epic of rich detail, memorable character and indelible plot. This is the sort of...

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Bill Broun (review date 6 July 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Broun, Bill. “Down Home Folk.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5127 (6 July 2001): 22.

[In the following review of Empire Falls, Broun approves of Russo's ambitious scope but finds the narrative to be overly nostalgic and bland.]

Empire Falls, the latest novel from Richard Russo, is a paean to and satire on small-town America. It works smoothly in the limited terms it sets for itself, offering the guilty pleasure of nostalgia and a cagey stereotyping that refuses to declare itself. The prose is utilitarian, the characters stock, and the ethos inoffensive. None the less, the almost angrily righteous praise the novel is receiving in America right...

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Bruce Allen (review date 5 August 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Allen, Bruce. “Love, Loss, and Small-Town Economics.” Boston Globe (5 August 2001): D5.

[In the following review, Allen praises Russo's complex characterizations and effective interweaving of multiple plot threads in Empire Falls.]

If you're seeking the perfect summertime read—a roomy, absorbing book in which to wander around and lose yourself for several relaxing days—you probably can't do better than Richard Russo's immensely satisfying fifth novel, Empire Falls.

Russo's credentials as a serious writer who never fails to entertain were firmly established by his bighearted early novels Mohawk (1986) and The Risk...

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Edward Hower (review date October 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hower, Edward. “Small-Town Dreams: Disappointment Haunts the Characters in Richard Russo's Depiction of Life in a Hapless Maine Backwater Town.” World and I 16, no. 10 (October 2001): 243.

[In the following review, Hower notes that Russo strikes a good balance between reality and morality in Empire Falls, arguing that the novel's “main strength is its skillfully developed characters”]

In art museums, people crowd around pictures of demons, like the ones in Hieronymus Bosch's grotesque landscapes, yet walk right by visions of radiant angels, hardly pausing to yawn. Evil is often a lot more interesting than virtue—in literature as well as art....

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Joseph Epstein (review date January 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Epstein, Joseph. “Surfing the Novel.” Commentary 113, no. 1 (January 2002): 32-7.

[In the following excerpt, Epstein laments the difficulty of identifying new literary talent and, singling out Jonathan Franzen and Russo as notable exceptions, provides a favorable review of Empire Falls.]

Reading novels has so long been a habit of mine that by now it qualifies as a full-blown addiction. My modus operandi is to alternate between the new and the old; frequently I have bookmarks in both simultaneously, hoping to keep up with the latest offerings while attempting to fill in some of the many gaps in my reading before I depart the planet. To this day, I feel a tug...

(The entire section is 2365 words.)

Rita D. Jacobs (review date spring 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jacobs, Rita D. Review of Empire Falls, by Richard Russo. World Literature Today 76, no. 2 (spring 2002): 153.

[In the following review of Empire Falls, Jacobs praises Russo's characterizations and prose but faults the novel for excessive length and abrupt resolution.]

First, I have to admit I am an unabashed Richard Russo fan. Especially in The Risk Pool and Straight Man, Russo has written quintessential novels about somewhat miniaturized subjects—growing up in a small, undistinguished town with a ne'er-do-well father, suffering through the petty squabbles of an English Department—and has done it with grace, humor, and a good...

(The entire section is 621 words.)

Kristen Case (review date July-August 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Case, Kristen. “Pulsating with Real Life.” New Leader 85, no. 4 (July-August 2002): 30-1.

[In the following review, Case praises the life and vitality of the stories in The Whore's Child and Other Stories.]

The short story's rise to prominence in American letters must be at least partly a consequence of its usefulness to English teachers. Not only is it easier than the novel to “workshop” (to use a questionable term in its most dubious form), it is easier to teach. I remember peering over my freshman English professor's shoulder at the contents page of his copy of the anthology we were using and seeing his handwritten notes alongside each title....

(The entire section is 1222 words.)

Peter Heinegg (review date 21 October 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Heinegg, Peter. “You Still Can't Get There from Here.” America 187, no. 12 (21 October 2002): 26.

[In the following review, Heinegg compliments Russo's deadpan comedic timing in The Whore's Child and Other Stories.]

Right beneath the title, the jacket of The Whore's Child displays a bare black cross; and we soon discover why. The subject of the title story is, of all things, an aging nun whose beloved absent father turns out to have been her (hated) mother's pimp. What the embittered Sister Veronique has in common with most of the cast in the remaining six tales (or novellas) in this collection is her more or less permanent, but wholly un-redemptive...

(The entire section is 826 words.)

Tom Deignan (review date November 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Deignan, Tom. “Good Liars.” World and I 17, no. 11 (November 2002): 229.

[In the following review, Deignan presents a critical reading of the stories in The Whore's Child and Other Stories, commending Russo's emphasis on examining the “act of storytelling.”]

Literary whippersnappers such as David Foster Wallace and Rick Moody spent the 1990s tinkering with the literary form to great acclaim. It seemed that when you opened any hip collection of stories, or the latest, greatest postmodern novel, you were as likely to see footnotes or characters who shared the author's name as you were to see dialogue and plot twists. Whether or not these formal...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Cooper, Rand Richards. “Bitter Harvests.” New York Times Book Review (14 July 2002): 10.

Cooper notes the significantly darker tone of Russo's short stories in The Whore's Child and Other Stories.

Gussow, Mel. “Writing a Novel in the Deli, Making Revisions in the Bar.” New York Times (29 August 2001): E1.

Gussow provides an overview of Russo's life and career upon the publication of Empire Falls.

Hemley, Robin. “The Howls of Ivy: Richard Russo's Funny but Sad Tale of a Professor with a Pack of Problems.” Chicago Tribune Books (3 August 1997): 3.


(The entire section is 323 words.)