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Empire Fallsby Richard Russo
"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 work to date." James Marcus, Atlantic Online (Read the entire Atlantic Online review here)
Synopses & Reviews
Richard Russo — from his first novel, Mohawk, to his most recent, Straight Man — has demonstrated a peerless affinity for the human tragicomedy, and with this stunning new novel he extends even further his claims on the small-town, blue-collar heart of the country.
Dexter County, Maine, and specifically the town of Empire Falls, has seen better days, and for decades, in fact, only a succession from bad to worse. One by one, its logging and textile enterprises have gone belly-up, and the once vast holdings of the Whiting clan (presided over by the last scion?s widow) now mostly amount to decrepit real estate. The working classes, meanwhile, continue to eke out whatever meager promise isn?t already boarded up.
Miles Roby gazes over this ruined kingdom from the Empire Grill, an opportunity of his youth that has become the albatross of his daily and future life. Called back from college and set to work by family obligations his mother ailing, his father a loose cannon Miles never left home again. Even so, his own obligations are manifold: a pending divorce; a troubled younger brother; and, not least, a peculiar partnership in the failing grill with none other than Mrs. Whiting. All of these, though, are offset by his daughter, Tick, whom he guides gently and proudly through the tribulations of adolescence.
A decent man encircled by history and dreams, by echoing churches and abandoned mills, by the comforts and feuds provided by lifelong friends and neighbors, Miles is also a patient, knowing guide to the rich, hardscrabble nature of Empire Falls: fathers and sons and daughters, living and dead, rich and poor alike. Shot through with the mysteries of generations and the shattering visitations of the nation at large, it is a social novel of panoramic ambition, yet at the same time achingly personal. In the end, Empire Falls reveals our worst and best instincts, both our most appalling nightmares and our simplest hopes, with all the vision, grace and humanity of truly epic storytelling.
"Even the minor members of Russo's large cast are fully fleshed, and forays into the past lend the narrative an extra depth and resonance. When it comes to evoking the cherished hopes and dreams of ordinary people, Russo is unsurpassed." Publishers Weekly
"In a warmhearted novel of sweeping scope....[Russo] shows an unerring sense of the rhythms of small-town life, balancing his irreverent, mocking humor with unending empathy for his characters and their foibles." Booklist
"In Empire Falls, the inhabitants seem so real that the smallest incidents are engaging, and the horrors that erupt will catch your breath. Try reminding yourself it's only a book while praying their dreams somehow break into life." The Christian Science Monitor
"The crowning achievement of [Russo's] remarkable career." Kirkus Reviews
"Empire Falls is one of those rare novels you don't want to end, and it will surely send newcomers to Richard Russo's earlier books. A reader couldn't hope for much better than that." Detroit Free Press
"I mean, if I were so unhappy, wouldn't I know?" asks Miles Roby, the hero of Empire Falls, Richard Russo's fifth and most ambitious novel yet. The answer, of course, is not necessarily, and one of Russo's great talents is to make us understand how an intelligent 40-year-old man can fail to recognize his own quiet desperation — and then make us believe that his life can change for the better. Along the way, Russo gives us a panoramic yet nuanced view of the imaginary town of Empire Falls, Maine, showing how the history of one powerful family can become the history of a place. It's the kind of big, sprawling, leisurely novel, full of subplots and vividly drawn secondary characters, that people are always complaining is an endangered species. Yet in part thanks to Russo's deft satiric touch much of the book is laugh-out-loud funny it never feels too slow or old-fashioned.
Russo's Empire Falls is one of those small Maine towns that never recovered from the migration southward of the textile manufacturing jobs that created it. The wealthy Whiting family controlled the place for over a century, until they abruptly sold off the last of the Empire Mills, leaving half the population unemployed. Francine Whiting, the conniving widow of the ineffectual C.B. Whiting, who committed suicide years ago, still owns most of the town, though the downtown is largely abandoned and there's no new development in sight.
Sad sack Miles contributes to the town's stagnation by running the Empire Grill for Mrs. Whiting. Mrs. Whiting is supposedly leaving the beat-up restaurant to Miles in her will, and in the meantime she's staunchly opposed to making any improvements. It's as if she wants the place to remain dreary out of spite much as she seemed to have had some twisted personal motive when she lured Miles away from college and into the job over the protests of his dying mother, the saintly Grace Roby. Grace's greatest hope was that Miles would escape Empire Falls and the small-minded citizens it produces.
Russo takes a wry yet compassionate view of the kind of passivity that has landed Miles where he is. It's never easy, he suggests, to see the long view of your own life. "Under Miles' competent stewardship, the Empire Grill, never terribly profitable, had gone into a long, gentle decline almost imperceptible without the benefit of time lapse photography," he writes, "until one day it was suddenly clear that the diner was unprofitable, and so it had remained for years."
As the novel opens, Mrs. Whiting's manipulations and the Empire Grill's failure are far from the end of Miles' problems. His wife, Janine, has left him for Walt Comeau, the preening owner of a cheesy health club who calls himself the Silver Fox. Walt has taken to frequenting the Empire Grill, challenging Miles to arm-wrestle and asking him to break $100 bills. Miles' daughter, Tick, is in her junior year of high school and seems to be bending under the weight of too many adolescent burdens. She's dealing with a menacing ex-boyfriend as well as the sudden appearance of the odious Comeau, her future stepfather, in her home, while her father is reduced to living in a fume-filled room above the restaurant.
Men like Miles, Russo suggests, are now getting the short end of the stick when it comes to divorce (just as women did in the previous generation). Janine abandoned their marriage, yet she gets to live in their house with her new fiancé, who's renting out his own place and pocketing the checks. And she gets custody of Tick, though Miles is clearly better suited to parenthood. Russo's portrait of the obsessively aerobicized Janine she's vain, humorless and about as deep as a mud puddle is among the book's most vicious and most hilarious.
Janine may be an obtuse, self-obsessed pain in the neck, yet the novel leaves open the question of whether she is justified in leaving a marriage that gave her no sexual satisfaction. She left Miles, she says, because in 20 years of marriage she had never had an orgasm, and she's not sure that Miles even understands the mechanics involved. For his own part, as Miles comes ruefully to acknowledge, he never loved Janine. The same inertia that keeps him under Mrs. Whiting's thumb led him to marry, and then remain at a comfortable emotional distance from, a woman to whom he is clearly unsuited. Just what would it take, the novel asks, to get someone like Miles, whose life has been distorted by this character flaw, to change things?
There are glimpses of romantic happiness in Empire Falls, and a few stable long-term bonds, but mainly the novel suggests that people are best off looking elsewhere for consolation. One of those places is religion, and Russo gamely takes on the unfashionable job of showing the emotional pull that the Roman Catholic Church has on someone like Miles. Family ties, if worn lightly, can also be lifesaving, especially when relatives find some shared purpose. (Miles' brother, David, who maimed his arm in an accident after a drug-soaked youth and now works at the Empire Grill, has updated the restaurant's menu and prods Miles to stand up to Mrs. Whiting and expand the business.) But they're often onerous, too (Miles' father is a shabby, exasperating small-time crook, good for laughs but not much else).
As for the vaunted "community" that small towns are said to offer, it amounts, in Empire Falls, to a few friendships and many more simmering animosities and outright feuds that go back generations. When the town itself explodes in a shocking crime (it's "ripped from today's headlines," as they say, but no less effective for that) and Miles finally seems on the verge of escape, I, for one, was rooting for him to get out of that hellhole, and take his bright, wonderful daughter who's surely one of the most appealing adolescents ever to grace the pages of fiction with him. But Russo, I think, would have us believe that the more important changes are internal, not geographic, and he makes his case without sentimentality or nostalgia, just compassion for his characters' foibles and deep insight into the startling, sometimes disturbing varieties of human nature. Maria Russo, Salon.com
"He stands alone as the Stendhal of blue-collar America....There are bound to be other, flashier novels published this year, but very few will find such a deep, permanent place in one's heart." Tom Bissell, Esquire
"Cause for celebration...easily his most seductive book thus far....Rich, humorous, elegantly constructed, rooted in the bedrock traditions of American fiction." Janet Maslin, The New York Times
"The history of American literature may show that Richard Russo wrote the last great novel of the twentieth century....Empire Falls holds the fading culture of small-town life in a light both illuminating and searing. It captures the interplay of past and present, comedy and tragedy, nation and individual in the tradition of America's greatest books." Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor
"He keeps readers riveted." Bruce Fretts, Entertainment Weekly
"Russo's command of his story is unerring, but his manner is so unassuming that his mastery is easy to miss. He satisfies every expectation without lapsing into predictability, and the last section...explodes with surprises that also seem, in retrospect, like inevitabilities....One of the best novelists around." A.O. Scott, The New York Times Book Review
In this droll, unsentimental, and occasionally hilarious novel, Richard Russo tells the story of a big-hearted man who becomes the unlikely hero of a small town with a glorious past but a dubious future.<P>The one (barely) viable business in Empire Falls, Maine, is the diner where Miles Roby has worked for twenty years, a job that cost him his college education and much of his self-respect. What keeps him there? It could be his bright, sensitive daughter, Tick, who needs all his help surviving the local high school. Or maybe it's Janine, Miles' soon-to-be ex-wife, who's shed fifty pounds and taken up with the noxiously vain health-club proprietor. Or perhaps (most gallingly) it's the imperious Francine Whiting, who owns everything in town — and believes that includes Miles himself. With Empire Falls Richard Russo cements his reputation as one of America's most compelling and compassionate storytellers.
About the Author
Richard Russo grew up in Gloversville, New York, the small, mostly working-class town that has served as the prototype for his fictional Mohawk and North Bath. With his father, Russo worked construction jobs during his vacations from the University of Arizona, where he received his B.A. He later went on to get a master's degree and had almost earned his Ph.D. in American literature when it occurred to him that he would rather write his own novels than analyze other people's. He is the author of Mohawk, The Risk Pool, Nobody's Fool (which was made into a feature film starring Paul Newman, Jessica Tandy, and Bruce Willis), and Straight Man. Russo lives in coastal Maine with his wife and their two daughters.
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