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 scions widow) now mostly amount to decrepit real estate. The working classes, meanwhile, continue to eke out whatever meager promise isnt 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
"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
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.
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.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group's discussion of Richard Russo's wonderfully evocative portrait of the small Maine town of Empire Falls. Dominated by the Whiting family, founders of the various mills that provided employment for most of the town's residents, at the turn of the twenty-first century Empire Falls is in sharp decline. Its mills are closed, its stores boarded up, its population dwindling. The families that remain live on memories of the past and the shared fantasy that the mills will reopen and the once-thriving town will experience a renaissance. The formidable Mrs. Whiting, widow of the last Whiting son (and rumored to be the richest woman in central Maine), makes no concession to the community's needs or fantasies, however. As the owner of the few viable businesses left in Empire Falls and a dependable if begrudging source of funds for essential town improvements, Mrs. Whiting wields her power over the town and its inhabitants with an iron will.
Miles Roby was once known around town as a young man smart enough to escape Empire Falls. A devoted son, he put his dream on hold when his mother's final illness interrupted his last year of college. Twenty years later, Miles is the proprietor of Mrs. Whiting's just barely profitable Empire Grill, the soon-to-be ex-husband of Janine (who has left him for the slick owner of the flashy new health club) and the proud father of Tick, a bright, loving teenager. Seduced by Mrs. Whiting's promise to bequeath him the grill, Miles stoically submits to her arbitrary, often humiliating demands--until the accidental discovery of a family secret shocks him into a troubling reevaluation of his life and the small town that shaped it. Nothing, however, prepares him for the horrific act that ultimately sets him free.
As he exposes the betrayals and self-deceptions, false hopes and genuine desires that motivate his quirky cast of characters, Richard Russo transforms the story of one town into an unforgettable exploration of the human condition. By turns funny, poignant, satiric and shocking, Empire Falls
captures us at our best and at our worst.
1. Richard Russo's description of town of Empire Falls is as memorable and vivid as his portraits of the people who live there. How do the details he provides about the town's setting and its streets, buildings and neighborhoods create more than a physical backdrop against which the story is played out? How does the use of flashbacks strengthen the sense of the town as a "living" character?
2. "One of the good things about small towns, Miles's mother had always maintained, was that they accommodated just about everyone" [p. 21]. Is this an accurate description of Empire Falls? Which characters in particular benefit from this attitude? What influences the level of tolerance Miles is willing to extend to Max Roby, Walt Comeau and Jimmy Minty, all of whom are constant irritants to him? What does he see as the redeeming characteristics of each of them?
3. Why is his relationship with Tick so important to Miles? In what ways is it reminiscent of his mother's attachment to him? How do Grace's expectations for Miles, as well as her ultimate disappointment in him, shape the way he is raising Tick?
4. Even before the full story of Grace and Max's marriage is revealed, what hints are there that Grace was less than the ideal wife and mother Miles remembers and reveres? Why does Miles choose to accept his mother's version of events of their trip to Martha's Vineyard, even though it entails a betrayal of his father [pp. 136-47]? When Miles finally realizes who Charlie Mayne really is, does it change his feelings about Grace in a significant way? Would he have felt differently if Grace were still alive and able to answer his questions [pp.338-9]? How does Miles's own situation—particularly his separation from Janine and his discovery of the relationship between Charlene and David—color his reaction to his mother's affair? How does his brief conversation with Max about Grace and Charlie [p. 373] shed light on the relationship between father and son?
5. Janine calls Miles "The World's Most Transparent Man" [p. 42] and Tick says, "It's not like you don't have any [secrets] . . . It's just that everybody figures them out" [p. 107]. Does Mrs. Whiting share this image of Miles? What evidence is there that she sees and understands more about the "real" Miles than the people closest to him do?
6. How does Russo use minor characters to fill out his portraits of the main figures? What roles do Horace Weymouth, Bea Majeski, Charlene and Otto Meyer play in shaping your impressions of and opinions about Miles, Janine and Tick?
7. How do David's feelings about Mrs. Whiting and the Empire Grill differ from Miles's? Whose attitude is more realistic? Is David's harsh criticism of Miles's passivity [pp. 224-5] justified? What insights does it give you into David's character? Is David more content with his life than Miles is with his own, and if so, why?
8. Charlene tells Miles: "David has this theory that between your mom and dad and him and you there's, like, one complete person" [p. 226]. Has each member of the family selected a particular role, or has it been thrust upon him or her? Is the division of roles a natural part of family life? Which member of the Roby family is the "most complete," and what sacrifices did he or she make to establish a strong individual identity?
9. What does Father Mark offer Miles that he cannot get from his other relationships? Is Miles drawn to him only because he is a priest? Why does Russo depict both priests as flawed men—Father Mark by his sexual longings and Father Tom by his dementia? How would you characterize the impact of Catholicism on Miles and Grace? Does attending church genuinely comfort them, or is it a convenient way of hiding from the problems in their lives and the decisions they have made? In what ways do Grace's confession to Father Tom and the penance he demands affect her character and her outlook on life?
10. Why does Tick befriend John Voss? How does her sense of responsibility for him compare to Miles's feelings—both when he's a child and a grown man—about Cindy Whiting? Are the differences attributable to the circumstances that bring each pair together, or do they reflect something deeper about Tick's and Miles's morality and their ability to empathize with other people? What other incidents demonstrate Tick's understanding of what other people need? Why is she unable to treat Janine in the same comfortable, nonjudgmental way she treats Miles and Max Roby?
11. Would you define Mrs. Whiting as a mother figure for Miles? Does she perceive herself in this way? Does Miles? Beneath their very different personas, what traits do Mrs. Whiting and Grace share? Do they represent strengths and weaknesses usually associated with women? In what ways does Mrs. Whiting's description of her relationship with Grace [p. 435] reaffirm their similarities? Which woman is more honest with herself about her motivations and feelings?
12. All of the marriages in Empire Falls fail in one way or another. Does your sense of who is responsible for each marital breakdown change as the events of the past and present unfold? Discuss the contrast between the way each of these marriages is initially described and the "real" stories: Grace and Max; Mr. and Mrs. Whiting; Miles and Janine. Mrs. Whiting says "Most people . . . marry the wrong people for all the wrong reasons. For reasons so absurd they can't even remember what they were a few short months after they've pledged themselves forever" [p. 169]. How does this assessment apply to the marriages mentioned above?
13. From the almost unimaginable cruelty of John Voss's parents to Mrs. Whiting's coldness toward Cindy, to Grace's emotional withdrawal from David (and to some extent Miles) when she joins the Whiting household, the novel contains several examples of the emotional and physical harm parents inflict on their children. Why do you think Russo made this a central theme of the book? Does it adequately explain, or even justify, behavior you would otherwise find completely unacceptable?
14. Empire Falls traces three very different families—the Whitings, the Robys, and the Mintys—through several generations. What do each of these families represent in terms of American society in general? How do their fates embody the economic and social changes that have occurred over the last century? To what extent are the members of the current generation trapped by the past?
15. What does Empire Falls provide that its residents might not be able to find in another town or city? Does living in a small town necessarily limit the satisfactions people get out of life? Miles says, "After all, what was the whole wide world but a place for people to yearn for their hearts' impossible desires, for those desires to become entrenched in defiance of logic, plausibility, and even the passage of time?" [p. 295]. Is he right? Which characters might have had better, more fulfilling lives if they had moved away from?
16. In contemplating the past year, Tick says, "Just because things happen slow doesn't mean you'll be ready for them. If they happened fast, you'd be alert for all kinds of suddenness. . . "Slow" works on an altogether different principle, on the deceptive impression that there's plenty of time to prepare" [p. 441]. How does this relate to the novel as a whole and the way it is structured? Why has Russo chosen Tick to express this insight?
17. What adjectives would you use to describe Empire Falls? How does Russo make the story of a dying town (with more than its share of losers) entertaining and engaging? Did you find most, if not all, of the characters sympathetic in some way?
Q: Was there a particular event or image that sparked EMPIRE FALLS?
A: When I finish a novel, it's hard to go back and try to reconstruct its beginnings. It's a little like an interrogation: what did you know and when did you know it? Here are a couple of things, though. When I was living in Waterville, Maine, some years ago, a factory closed down that had employed a large number of women who had been sewing famous-label men's dress shirts for much of their lives. They'd done everything they could to save their jobs and the factory, but the multi-national company that owned it shut them down anyway. That struck me as a story that was playing out all over the country, if not the world. From the beginning of my writing career, I've always been interested in ordinary people swept up in economic and political forces they can't begin to comprehend, as well as in the changing face of American labor. Becoming a writer has only deepened my sympathies for working people, who are always, it seems to me, the first to be sold out.
The other event that had burrowed deep was the school shooting in Paducah, especially the question it begged: how could such a thing happen here? The answers that are typically offered to such questions are sociological and political—tighter gun control, return to family values, reducing violence on television and video games. Better answers to such impossible questions, I've always thought, are offered by novels, which ask you to live horror rather than simply witness or think about it.
Finally, in my previous novels I've written a lot about fathers and sons. As a father of two beloved daughters, I thought it high time to put a father/daughter relationship at the heart of one of my novels. In fact, now that I look back on it, it's the thing I'm most proud of in this new book.
Q: EMPIRE FALLS has a large cast of characters, any of whom might have been the center of the novel. How did you decide on Miles Roby, the middle-aged manager of the Empire Grill, as your protagonist?
A: I suppose there are two answers to this question. The first is kind of a non-answer, though it may be the truer. Such decisions are often intuitive; they feel right. Which is another way of saying that you decide before you're even aware of the fact that you have a decision to make. The more “analytical” answer is that of all the characters in the novel, Miles may be the most trapped—and that's saying something, since they're all trapped in one way or another. Janine is trapped by her need to be beautiful; Tick by her youth; David Roby by an accident. Even Mrs. Whiting, who rules the town, is in a way cornered by it. But Miles is trapped more interestingly and more completely--by the past, by his faith, by an old love, by his devotion to his daughter, by his own decency. I'm always drawn to the character whose dilemma is such that I can't imagine what I would do if I were in his shoes.
Q: People in Empire Falls often remind Miles that he stands to inherit something from Mrs. Whiting, yet the very possibility of this inheritance seems to imprison him. Is this an example of the price of wealth, even predicted wealth?
A: I suppose that's one way to look at it. My own feeling is that people are generally wrong to wait for others to make good on promises, either explicit or implied. Was it Lillian Hellman who used to tell young women writers: “Don't expect anyone to save you? Save yourself.” Maybe it was Flannery O'Connor. Somebody pretty damn smart, anyway. It's good advice, but tough to follow when you've been told the check's in the mail. Whole communities wait for promises to be fulfilled, long after those who made the promises are dead and buried. And like individuals, communities imagine promises and also mishear them. Miles is pretty sure Mrs. Whiting has made a promise, but is it one he heard? Imagined? Hoped for? And even if it were granted, would that be a good or bad thing?
Q: Can you talk about the effect of the collapse of small-town economies on the younger generation, as represented by Miles's daughter Tick and her peers?
A: I think the place you grow up in is a lot like “The Hotel California”: you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. We'll never know any place better than the place we grew up, and no place, I suspect, will ever be more important to us, at least in terms of our imaginative lives. For that reason there's something tragic in the understanding that many kids from small towns have—that in order to be a success in life, they'll have to leave; to remain behind would be an admission of failure. For many, it means leaving their heart's home. Then again, there's a long American tradition, embodied in the novels of Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis and others, which suggests that leaving a small town may be about the best thing that can happen to any young person. One thing seems clear: we've become a far-flung nation. “Where do you want to go today?” Bill Gates wants to know. Implied is that nobody wants to stay home.
Q: Miles considers the rich “beautiful people” on Martha's Vineyard almost foreign to him, and yet he's drawn to them. Do you find yourself identifying with this perspective?
A: Well, who isn't attracted to beauty? Or, for that matter, to things foreign? Both Gatsby and Nick Carroway are attracted to the mansions and the fancy cars and the wild parties on Long Island, just as Pip is attracted to privilege in Great Expectations. Show me someone who claims not to be attracted to such things and I'll show you either a liar or a person with no imagination. That said, wealth and beauty play a key role in Gatsby's destruction, and they cause Pip to behave in such a way that he loses all sense of his truest self. In the end they send Nick scurrying back to his bedrock Midwest values, feeling like he himself has dodged a bullet. Such is the nature of seduction.
Q: How do you imagine Mainers, and other New Englanders, will respond to the novel?
A: No clue. I thought academics would hate my last novel, Straight Man, but for the most part they've embraced it. When I read from the novel on book tour, professors showed up wearing those fake nose/glasses I have Lucky Hank wearing when he threatens to kill a duck a day. In general, I think people like having their experience of life validated; they like to think they count and they're glad you've noticed them, even if you get things wrong. In Empire Falls, I didn't want to “do Maine” in the sense of using a lot of down-east dialect or local color. Even when I was writing about upstate New York, I was always more interested in locating people by class and work than by region; it's the latter that makes you a “regional” writer, I suspect.
I hope people in Maine like the book; in the past, I've sold very well in New England. But my greater hope is that the book will ring true everywhere.
Q: What might surprise your readers about EMPIRE FALLS?
A: Well, I hope everything and nothing. When a favorite author of mine comes out with a new book, I always hope for two contradictory things: first, I hope it's like all the other books of his or hers that I love, and second, I hope he's not going to repeat himself. Sure, it's a paradox, but I suspect I'm not alone in my desires. So, I hope that when readers pick up Empire Falls and read the first chapter they'll feel that, yes, they're in a Russo novel, but not one they've read before. I'd also hope that their surprises in the reading parallel my own in the writing; I was surprised on virtually every page, and I hope readers will be too, because I wouldn't like to think that either my style or my peculiar way of seeing things have become predictable. What surprised me most about the book was how much it took out of me. Even though we know it won't, most authors keep hoping that writing novels will get easier as a result of experience. It doesn't, probably because it's not supposed to.