The moral of this story is that I need to listen to my readers when they recommend a book, because they’re two for two so far. The most recent successful suggestion is Richard Russo’s Empire Falls.
The book’s jacket describes Russo as a “compassionate” writer, which sounds like something that some halfwit in marketing came up with after reading two or three pages of the book, but it turns out to be an incredibly apt description of the way Russo creates and develops his characters. Empire Falls is set in a declining mill town in Maine, and the plot centers on the slightly hapless Miles Roby, manager of the Empire Grill, father of a teenaged daughter, en route to a divorce from his longtime wife Janine, who is leaving him for Walt Comeau, the “Silver Fox” who owns the local gym and is forever challenging Miles to an arm-wrestle. His daughter, Tick, is having her own troubles, including an ex-boyfriend with anger issues, a classmate with a terrible family life and who never speaks, and difficulty dealing with her parents’ divorce, which she squarely blames on her mother. And Russo has populated the town with a number of other characters, all surprisingly well developed despite limited screen time, from Miles’ kleptomaniac father, Max, to the young and possibly gay Catholic priest Mark, to the omnipresent town matriarch, Francine Whiting, who has Miles and perhaps the rest of the community by the balls. Yet with perhaps the sole exception of that last character, everyone in the book is presented with some degree of compassion or at least understanding – people are shaped by their circumstances, some of which are beyond their control, and while many people manage to overcome disadvantageous backgrounds, it’s too easy just to pile blame on those who can’t or won’t.
The story revolves around Miles Roby’s divorce and some of the events in his life that the arrival of the actual legal event (as opposed to the end of his marriage, which happened some time prior to the book’s opening) sets in motion. He has spent twenty years of his life at the restaurant, forever awaiting the day when Francine Whiting will give him the restaurant, probably through her death, which doesn’t seem all that imminent. Russo tells Miles’ story through intermittent flashbacks and changes in perspective, revealing in stages the history of the Whitings, Miles’ family history, and even some of the stories behind the other characters. And since the town is so small, all of the stories intersect at multiple points with other stories, characters run into other characters, and in very thin sheets Russo gives us more and more details on each of them.
The book also reads as an allegorical history of small-town New England, which is dotted with slumping or failing former mill towns that have never really recovered from the end of the area’s textile industry. Empire Falls residents continue to cling to hopes that the mill will re-open and that those who remained will get their old jobs back, remembering, perhaps, good old days that weren’t all that good, and that aren’t coming back even if the town does find a new industry.
The story finally turns in its last fifty or so pages on the one real event of the book, the external stimulus that shocks Miles out of his emotional stupor. It was foreshadowed for a while in the book, but Russo handled it deftly and quickly, almost as if he disdained writing about action when he had dialogue and introspection to write.
A couple of quick notes:
- This is the seventh winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction that I’ve read, and it’s been a mixed bag. Beloved and To Kill a Mockingbird are among my favorite novels, but Independence Day was disappointing, and I thought The Shipping News managed the twin feat of being vulgar and uninteresting.
- I was helping out at the Tepper School of Business’s table at an MBA recruiting event on Sunday, and had my copy of Empire Falls sitting on the table. One prospective student noticed it hidden behind a sign, pointed, and just said, “Great book.” Turns out he’s a Mainer and thought that Russo did a fantastic job of capturing the culture of the state’s small towns.