Empire Falls, by Richard Russo
Empire Falls, by Richard Russo

“And most important, it was our duty to give love to those who needed our affection.” — Grace Roby, in Empire Falls, by Richard Russo

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I have been, on rare occasions, enthralled by the Duggar family. If you’re not American—or if you avoid People and US Weekly—the Duggars are an extremely religious family comprised of 19 children. One of the family’s mottos is J.O.Y., the acronyms standing for the order in which they believe respect should be bestowed: Jesus, Others, and (finally) Yourself. It’s an interesting concept, one that can be taken too far, particularly in a rigid and patriarchical environment. But wipe out the religious overtones, and it’s probably an attitude that most people—especially parents—embody. And subconsciously or not, we do it often: Full car and one child has to ride up front (air bags turned off, of course!)? I’d rather put one of my own in the hot seat than someone else’s child.

It’s one step beyond the Golden Rule: Do Better Onto Others than You Would Do to Yourself.

"I'm gonna make you pop-u-lar!"
“I’m gonna make you pop-u-lar!”

Here’s another angle on the idea of (seemingly) elevating someone above yourself: In the musical Wicked, Glinda desires (for dubious reasons) to give her roommate, Elphaba, a makeover. Glinda (the sugar-sweet Good Witch of the North, if you’re thinking of the movie version of The Wizard of Oz) says to Elphaba (the notorious Wicked Witch of the West), “Elphie, now that we’re friends, I’ve decided to make you my new project!” Her reply? “You really don’t have to do that.” To which the apparently exceedingly good-hearted Glinda retorts, “I know. That’s what makes me so nice!” She continues singing:

Whenever I see someone less fortunate than I, 
And let’s face it, who isn’t less fortunate than I?
My tender heart tends to start to bleed.
And when someone needs a makeover,
I simply have to take over!
I know, I know exactly what they need! 

I love musical theatre almost as much as I love books, so here’s a clip of Kristen Chenoweth practicing her own version of J.O.Y with Idina Menzel:

In Empire Falls, Richard Russo’s Pulitzer-winning 2001 novel, the author gives these words to Francine Whiting, the wealthy benefactor of the weather-beaten Maine town for which the book is named: “Lives are rivers. We imagine we can direct their paths, though in the end there’s but one destination, and we end up being true to ourselves only because we have no choice. People speak of selfishness, but that’s another folly, because of course there’s no such thing.”

There are two problems with the Duggar and Glinda examples above. First, they demonstrate that a form of narcissism lies at the root of these actions. The notion that You, Awesome You can change the “flow of the river,” to use Russo’s metaphor for life, elevates the individual to quite a high level. Similarly, a form of martyrdom can result: “Oh, no, I’ll be the one to take the fall here. (Everyone, watch!)” We crave the certainty of knowing precise steps to follow in order to ensure the type of positive outcome that allows us to bask in the glory of a “rescued” person. You know the sentiment: “Volunteering at a soup kitchen/homeless shelter/after-school program gives me so much satisfaction because I know that I’m making a difference!” What we really want is a sure-fire way to get those feel-good results.

The second way that the above examples fail, however, is that they are couched in grand gestures and lavish vocabulary. They’ve set the bar awfully high; what if failure occurs?

The River Liffey in Dublin: Can you change the flow?
The River Liffey in Dublin: Can you change the flow?

Russo introduces readers to Miles Roby, a man in the middle of a divorce and the manager of the town’s diner; Mrs. Whiting believes Miles to always “…instinctively seek out the middle road, mid-way between dangerous passion and soul-destroying indifference. [His] whole adult life has been a study in deft navigation…” And the ways that Miles, however good-intentioned, attempts to place himself at the bottom of the totem pole (and encourages his daughter to do the same) have a tinge of grandiosity about them. Often, the ways that Russo’s characters attempt to demonstrate their duty to those whom they deem needy are noble, but nonetheless insincere. For instance, when Miles invites Cindy Whiting, the handicapped former classmate (and daughter of the town’s scion) who has attempted suicide because of his unreturned affection, to the big football game, “He’d permitted guilt to maneuver him into offering a weak, hypocritical gesture he was pathetically unprepared to follow through with.”

Of course, nothing is wrong with the above. From a parenting perspective, I think society would make great strides if parents modeled a bit more empathy. And, yes, someone’s life course can transform because of an individual’s attention. But Russo does something great with one of his minor characters and illustrates how, really, the way humans operate is via a set of imperfect assumptions and amorphous methods.

Otto Meyer, the principal of the high school where Miles’ daughter Tick attends, isn’t a particularly definitive or dominant individual. Otto grew up in Empire Falls with Miles—they were two kids not quite in the inner circle of popularity, but not ostracized either. When Miles’ nearly non-existent driving skills leave even the drivers ed instructor paralyzed with fear with Miles behind the wheel, it is Otto who leans over and depresses the brake. And when Miles starts going to the Empire Grill—the local dive that he later manages—to bask in the presence of his crush, Charlene Gardiner, Otto agrees to accompany him. While Otto clearly possesses a genuine nice streak and in some form is helping out his buddy, his actions—at the core—are selfish. Although he may have wanted to save Miles further embarrassment at the hands of the driving instructor, Otto was a passenger in the car as well; saving the car from a crash would only benefit him as well (although he does sustain a minor injury as a result of his heroism). And accompanying Miles to the Empire Grill? It turns out that Otto, too, enjoyed being in Charlene’s company.

Years later, as Otto and his high-school-sweetheart-turned-wife Anne ponder the adolescence of their son Adam, the principal has to confront that “…he’d gone into parenthood with an overly modest game plan, by promising himself he would never be the living torment to his son that his own father had been to him.” Now, however, he was feeling that “He and Anne had indulged their son, Adam, beyond reckoning, and as a result the boy…seemed, for example, to believe the world was kindly disposed toward him as a matter of course.” But his wife sees things differently: “Anne was of the opinion that all this was quite natural, that what her husband was always trying to explain to her as he lay in the dark unable to sleep—that they’d somehow failed to prepare their son for the real world—was silly. Adam suffered from nothing more serious than adolescence, a disease that would eventually pass, like a particularly virulent episode of the chicken pox; ugly to look at but temporary and certainly not life-threatening.”

So, which is it? Is Anne’s more laissez faire style the right way to parent, to “change the flow of the river”? Or does Otto’s desire to be more definitive in his discipline of Adam point to the correct impetus for change? And, lastly, will anything that he and Anne do or don’t do actually affect their son? One thing is true, though: They both want Adam to know that they care for and love him. And I think that through the fumbling expressions of that love, through the conflicted ways the two parents wish to proceed, and through the knowledge that they are both maneuvering under perhaps the tiniest bit of selfishness (maybe Otto, as principal, is motivated by not wanting to “look bad”, maybe Anne can’t muster the energy to discipline properly), a person on the receiving end of these sentiments may actually change.

I think that Russo’s book, such a magnificent piece of fiction and full of rich and clever allegory (how did I miss reading this one when it was first published?), holds up partly because it supports the fact that unlike the desires of Jim-Bob Duggar and Glinda, our best efforts will always be riddled with imperfection and unidentified nuances, making any changes to river flow all the more sweet. In one of Empire Falls‘ pivotal moments, it is Otto who ultimately does put someone else before him, but the reader doesn’t know whether to classify his action as intentional or merely instinctual. There’s no formula, and it’s in our grappling with how best to “better” someone, demonstrated by Otto, that the genuine caring comes through.

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, Tuolumne River, Yosemite National Park
Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, Tuolumne River, Yosemite National Park


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