Richard Russo


"Empire Falls"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark JUL 21, 2002)

"The Planning and Development Commission office, which Miles had never entered before, was large, and along one whole wall sat a scale model of downtown Empire Falls, so obviously idealized that he didn't immediately recognize it as the town he'd lived his whole life in. The streets were lined with bright green toy trees, and the buildings so brightly painted, the streets so clean, that Miles's first thought was that this was an artist's notion of what a future Empire Falls might look like after an ambitious and costly revitalization project. Only closer inspection revealed that the model represented not the future but the past. This, Miles realized was the Empire Falls of his own childhood, he noticed several businesses along Empire Avenue that had been razed over the last two decades, leaving in real life a rash of excess parking lots. The Empire Grill, neglected in real life, in miniature looked as if Mrs. Whiting had given Miles every penny he'd ever asked for. "

Miles Roby is the manager and fry-cook for the Empire Grill. If Miles' mother had had her way, Miles would not be living in Empire Falls now and certainly not working for Mrs. Whiting. He almost escaped, but during his senior year in college, Mrs. Whiting summoned him home to be with his dying mother -- much to his mother's anguished protest. But Miles believed he was doing the right thing. Then, seemingly motivated by altruism, but in reality probably because of his crush on the waitress Charlene, he took on the job managing the Empire Grill for Mrs. Whiting, after the previous manager died. It was supposed to be for only one year, but at some point he married Janine (Charlene married another) and they had a daughter who is now a sophomore in high school. And Janine is now his soon-to-be-ex-wife.

Read ExcerptThough just about everything that the Whiting family once owned in Empire Falls has been shut down, the Empire Grill is still inexplicably open, even though it hasn't shown a profit for years. Miles hangs onto the belief that he will own the restaurant, when Mrs. Whiting dies. Whether this is true or not is not as much the intrigue as to why Mrs. Whiting treats Miles differently ---is it because the Roby's and the Robideaux (her maiden name) are related as his father claims? Or is it that Mrs. Whiting holds a special place in her heart because of his mother and all she did while working for her and her crippled daughter? Or, is it, as they joke, that she just enjoys watching Miles suffer. Of course, he's realistic enough to know that his first act as owner would be to sell the business for whatever he can get -- there really isn't any reason to keep a restaurant in a dying town. He also knows that since Mrs. Whiting doesn't ever concede to his request for equipment replacement, inheriting the grill will be like the other "generous" gifts she's made to the town; it will cost him more to fix it up than the restaurant is worth. His dream is to live on Martha's Vineyard, where he takes his annual two-week vacation, and to own something like a bookstore/cafe. Though being heir to Empire Falls might be more easily within his grasp now that he is about to be divorced and the Whiting's crippled daughter, Cindy, is back in town. Everyone knows that she twice tried to kill herself because of her unrequited love for Miles.

After a strange alcohol induced accident in which his younger brother lost the use of one arm, David, now sober, helps Miles run the Empire Grill. Miles has the tendency to keep status quo just as Mrs. Whiting desires, but David sees a natural challenge in growing the business. Thus he convinces Miles to open the restaurant weekend nights to attract the students and professors in nearby Fairhaven for what they call International nights (twice-cooked noodles one night, Mexican flautas another). And they also take on special catering jobs. In fact, these two ideas are such a success that David wants Miles to push Mrs. Whiting to apply for a liquor license. Miles concedes that David is right, but he also knows deep down that Mrs. Whiting isn't looking to make the restaurant profitable, though he doesn't understand why, and it seems that he'd rather not think about this.

Though he is thinking about it, he frequently lapses into reliving certain memories of his childhood and his mother. It seems that at this particular juncture in his life, he needs to resolve something about the one trip he and his mother took to Martha's Vineyard when she met a man named Charlie Mayne.

Although the central story involves around Miles Roby and his family, there are many subplots and a wide range of subject matters that are explored through these colorful characters and their routine habits and the not-so-usual events that take place. (Reading reviews, you'll find that everyone picks up on different themes.) Empire Falls offers up a cultural snapshot what it is like to live in a small New England mill town - where the past is visible and seems to have a handle on the present, yet at the same time, the upcoming generation is already leaving their mark and changing the town. Overriding all of this is the depiction of a place that has good people, annoying ones, not so good to look at people and as always, those that have power and can manipulate.

And as one might expect, families live in Empire Falls for generations. While each new generation thinks it is making its own way, it's clear that they inadvertently get stuck repeating the same role over and over - they may look different to each new generation, but its the same. At least, this is how it is in the dying town of Empire Falls. (Is this why it is dying?) Jimmy Minty, the corrupt town cop, is a bully like his father; and his son Zack, although he appears to be more popular, is on the verge of taking over the family tradition. Furthermore, Jimmy Minty's position may seem elevated from his Dad --- he aims to be the next Chief of Police --- but he still does the same dirty work that his father did for the Whiting family. It doesn't matter if they are rich or poor; there is no escape from this. Each generation of Whiting men marry the same kind of woman, "the one woman in the world who would regard making them miserable as her life's noble endeavor." The Roby family is no less immune to the generational repeats than the Minty's or the Whitings, and this is essentially the novel's plot. Just as Mile's mother, Grace Roby, tried to make a better life for her son, Miles wants the same for his daughter, Tick.

Russo seems not to draw any final conclusions, after all, one answer would not fit all situations, but he does hint that this generational repetition may be the result of predetermined expectations as much as the convenience of habit. Though Mrs. Whiting would have it that "Lives are rivers. We imagine we can direct their paths, though in the end there's but one destination, and we end up being true to ourselves only because we have no choice." I don't believe for a second that Mrs. Whiting proffers this wisdom because she believes it to be true; ironically, these words are part of her bag of tools for engineering the human river called Miles Roby, her pet project. Certainly, if her pawn accepts this, then her empire is easier to manage.

Empire Falls is told from the perspective of multiple characters, as such the people in the town become very three-dimensional. And what a cast of characters there are (!) --- some are very likable, some not and others grow on you - but almost all will make you smile as you get to know them and accept that they are who they are.

The aging stud Walt Comeau (a.k.a. The Silver Fox) is one of those annoying characters that every small community has. He is the fiancé of Miles' soon-to-be-ex-wife Janine and the local health club owner. For some uncanny logic of his own, Walt comes to Empire Grill daily to show Miles that he holds no grudges for letting him steal his wife. He doesn't come to eat lunch, but to play gin rummy with Horace and to bestow wisdom on the ill effect of eating greasy burgers turning the stomachs of the Empire Grill patrons. And has this uncanny need to arm wrestle with Miles. And why is Janine marrying him? She has decided that she deserves pleasure and is going to grasp it any way she can, but basically this man introduced her to the orgasm - although she should be considered courageous, she just comes off as pitiful. Her daughter, Tick, is none too happy with Janine's engagement to Walt. Tick Roby, like her father, is very likable. She's the kind of teenager that has keen observation of the adults around her and the kids she goes to school with. Russo gives her more of a present tense in her narrative, which amplifies the conflict of the past presiding over the present in the novel. Although Russo does not explore the full implications of the Internet effects on a town like Empire Falls, he does make the point that when Tick meets a boy from out of town during vacation, she is able to keep in touch through e-mail, which gives her an out from her small town destiny with Zack Minty.

And there is my favorite character, Max Roby. Max starts off in the not likable category, but Russo makes him really grow on you. Max has disgusting personal hygiene, usually sports his last meal in his beard and stinks. He enjoys smoking cigarettes so that others get stuck breathing his air. He'll steal from anyone to get what he wants when he wants; there are no obstacles for Max Roby, only opportunity. And like a child that has yet to learn there are some things you don't say out loud, Max says exactly what's on his mind --- like the time Horace joins him at the bar and Max looks at the fibroid cyst growing on Horace's forehead (which the rest of the town ignores) and suggests, "You should get that thing removed." This from a man who is working his way up to getting Horace to buy him a few beers. Of all the characters, Max is the only one who freely leaves and returns to Empire Falls not at all bound by the constraints of family, church or community.

There are so many more characters that come to life in Empire Falls, that I have not even begun to cover them all, but thinking about (most of) them brings a smile to my face. Obviously you'll need to read it for yourself to meet them. For me, I felt that the novel started off a little slow or seemed to be slow, that is until I got into the rhythm - sort of like going from big city to small town and when you have to get used to the pace of things. Not that Empire Falls is all peace and quiet. Unfortunately, things do happen that are quite beyond the reach of the Whiting family. And as Tick observes at one critical point, "Things happen slow... if they happened fast, you'd be alert for all kinds of suddenness, aware that speed was trump. 'Slow' works on an altogether different principle, on the deceptive impression that there's plenty of time to prepare, which conceals the fact, that no matter how slow things go, you'll always be slower."

This is one of those novels that when you get to the end, the characters live on. I am still imagining how the rest of their lives turned out.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 499 reviews


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About the Author:

Richard RussoRichard Russo grew up in Gloversville, New York, a small, mostly working-class town. He received his B.A. from the University of Arizona, went on to get a Master's Degree, and had almost earned his Ph.D. in American literature when he decided that he would rather write his own novels than analyze other people's.

Russo has taught at The University of Southern Illinois, The Iowa Writer’s Workshop and currently teaches writing at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. In addition to writing fiction, Russo has created numerous screenplays, some of which have even been made into films (Nobody’s Fool, Twilight). The Whore's Child is his first short story collection.

Russo lives on the coast of Maine with his wife and their two daughters.

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