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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, June 19th, 2001


Empire Falls: A Novel

by Richard Russo

A review by James Marcus

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. The title refers to a down-at-heel town in contemporary Maine whose pulp mills and shirt factory have long since fallen silent, leaving the population to eke out a living along the economic margins in bars, doughnut shops, greasy spoons. Russo attends to both the mighty (the plutocratic Whiting clan) and the meek (everybody else). Yet the focus of this post-industrial panorama is Miles Roby, the manager of the Empire Grill, who seems to preside serenely over the collapse of his personal and professional lives. His wife has left him for the local fitness-club mogul, and his restaurant, leased unto eternity from the rapacious Francine Whiting, is on its last legs. Miles, however, is a pathologically nice guy. And Russo gets the maximum mileage out of his protagonist's passivity, making it a source of laughter and melancholic recognition: "One of the odd things about middle age, he concluded, was the strange decisions a man discovers he's made by not really making them, like allowing friends to drift away through simple neglect." It may be that the author, a master of sweet-and-sour narrative, has allowed Miles's good nature to grow a little too sugary. And at just over 500 pages the novel feels overstuffed. Still, we sense that the protagonist's lengthy fuse will lead, sooner or later, to an explosion and when it finally comes, Russo's slow-burn strategies prove to be smart ones after all.

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