I’ve wanted to read Empire Falls by Richard Russo for several years now, and when I saw a copy at the library book sale a few weeks ago, I snatched it up. Last week I plowed through it. With just a couple of misgivings, my main reaction is, “What a book.”
Empire Falls won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for 2001, and the award is well deserved. The book doesn’t tell a single story, but instead gives a picture of life in a small town in Maine – the Empire Falls of the title – which continues to struggle on even though its economy is barely on life support after all of its local industries have packed up and moved away. The point of view switches between a number of characters, but the main one we follow is Miles Roby, a lifelong resident of the town who runs the local diner (the Empire Grill), is divorcing his wife, and is trying to raise a daughter through the tough times of adolescence.
Empire Falls‘s story meanders a great deal, as well it should; life, real life, never really seems to have any actual direction, as much as we might wish otherwise, and any momentum tends to be more a matter of perception than reality. Russo’s novel, then, is more tapestry than plot-driven story, following the logical results of a group of quirky people interacting with one another over the years.
Russo demonstrates a keen understanding of the dynamics of a small town like Empire Falls: how everything is dominated by the rich person who still owns everything in town (or seems to), how the people who remain in the town in which they grew up find themselves continually reliving the social interactions they had in high school, which tend to be the same social interactions as the ones their parents endured in their high school years, and so on. The dream, for so many, becomes to simply to break the cycle by leaving town. Some make it, some don’t, and some leave town only to come back.
The town’s social life seems to revolve around two establishments, Miles’s Empire Grill and the bar run by his soon-to-be-former mother-in-law. Through it all, Miles tends to be deeply stoic, almost maddeningly accepting of his lot in life, no matter how many people tell him that he needs to stand up, fight for what he wants, or just leave the town entirely. His younger brother David is constantly lecturing Miles on the shortcomings of his approach to life; David is the person who is always asking, “Hey, did you do the thing we talked about yet”, only to be told by Miles in reply, “It wasn’t a good time” or “It was really awkward” or, just plain, “No, I didn’t get to it yet.”
One of the regulars of Miles’s diner is the loudmouth jerk who is set to marry his soon-to-be-ex, Janine, and Miles just stoically endures the continued presence of the guy who stole his wife. Miles even somehow manages to possibly lead on the crippled daughter of the rich woman who owns most of the town, a woman who happens to have been in love with Miles since high school.
And then there’s Miles’s father, Max, a ne’er-do-well who makes his way through life doing odd jobs and sponging off nearly everyone around him. Max is wise in his own way, but his wisdom is extremely hard to find underneath his constant stream of BS. It turns out, via flashbacks, that Max’s wife – Miles’s mother – had cheated on him once, while on a trip to Martha’s Vineyard with her son along for the ride. The identity of the man she cheated with turns out to be one of the book’s main secrets and revelations, which suddenly clarifies a lot of the dynamics between the various characters.
Russo’s women are also all sharply drawn: Janine Roby, who is divorcing Miles and remarrying a man she clearly doesn’t like, simply because he isn’t Miles; their daughter Tick (a nickname, obviously), who is shy and awkward in high school and yet somehow has caught the eye of the star football player (who happens to be the son of the town cop); Janine’s mother Bea, who runs the local tavern and who is constantly giving Janine very blunt advice about all the ways she is going wrong in her life. And above it all is Mrs. Whiting, the rich woman who dominates life in Empire Falls.
My only real problem with Empire Falls is that, while the first 400 pages or so of the book meander slowly through the life in this small town, in the last 100 momentum starts to build as the hand of plot starts to push things along. Through most of the book, it seems like a portrait of a town that we’re only getting to see for a short time, but at the end, Russo starts tying up plotlines. Most of these revelations are satisfactory, but I was never sure I even wanted resolutions to some of those threads. And I flat-out did not like the novel’s closing paragraphs, where one final character’s story is tied up in a way that I found at odds with the tone of the entire book to that point. It feels like the punchline to a black humor joke, and I definitely did not like it.
But the rest of the book is awfully good.