Empire Falls, by Richard Russo (2001)

I swear I didn’t pick this up because it won a Pulitzer (I’m not interested in recommendations from any outfit that hands out awards for horrible photos like this). A friend was reading it on a roadtrip, and my own book was moving along slowly, so I started reading this one while she took a turn driving.

This book is a straightforward slice-of-life story set in post-industrial small-town Maine, full of characters that for one reason or another are fated to stay in a community well past its prime. Home is where the heart is, I suppose, not to mention the mortgage, your family, your friends, and the only life you’ve known. A sort of Lake Wobegon Days for the moderately cynical, by the time the roadtrip was over I was sufficiently enjoying liking the characters I was supposed to like and disliking the ones I was supposed to dislike that I was ready to get a copy from the library in order to finish the second half. When I got to the ending (which I really didn’t see coming, but no hints here) I found I was genuinely engaged with the characters, who are burdened with nothing so grandiose as a tragic flaw but rather the accumulated bad habits of their parents, or at least enough of them to make the town forever carry on just as it always has. I’m not sure I’ll go out of my way soon to read Russo’s other novels, but I would say this one is worth picking up, even if you’re not trapped in a van with few other options.