Empire Falls (Review)


Empire Falls
Richard Russo, 2001
496 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
November 2007

There seems to be no end to my use of superlatives when it comes to  describing Richard Russo as a writer: lucid, funny, humane, poignant perceptive, trenchant.... It's an embarrassment of adjectival riches.

What I'm trying to say is simply this: Empire Falls is a good book—a wonderful book. It's the story of stifled dreams or, more precisely, of those afraid even to have dreams.

Adhering to his penchant for writing about the working class, Russo follows the lives of those who eke out an existence in a once prosperous Maine town, now rusted out like the old textile mill at the end of the main street.

His characters exhibit a rich combination of humor and despondency. They inhabit minds with thoughts like this one from Miles Roby, the central character whose wife is divorcing him:

For Miles, one of the great mysteries of marriage was that you had to actually say things before you realized they were wrong.

It's similar to the quip that circulates on the internet: "if a man is alone in the woods and speaks, is he wrong?" But Miles's insight is more trenchent...and sardonic:

Of course, the other possibility was that there was no right thing to say, that the choice wasn't between right and wrong, but between wrong, more wrong, and as wrong as you can get. Wrong, all of it... by virtue of the fact that Miles himself was saying it.

Humorous as it is, the passage sums up how Miles lives his life—in the zone of wrong and more wrong. This book is about whether Miles will realize his mother's dreams—can he rise above his circumstances and get it right?

We get a hint of just how tough that will be for him when he contemplates having to paint the church steeple. He's terrified: "For all his early promise, Miles had scaled no heights." It's a nice symbol, and like the other symbols in a book heavy with them, it is tossed off deftly.

Although the story is told in the present, Russo sweeps in the past. We watch events that occurred long ago play out, years later, with seeming inevitability—like the river on which the town sits. The story works its way to its climax with few surprises because Russo has carefully prepared us. Unfortunately, though, the final pages are...well, silly, a bit over the top (they involve a cat). But by this time, who cares. Russo is just too good. Do not miss this.

There's a 2005 mini-series, but despite a solid cast it's not all that good. In fact, it's awful, except for Ed Harris as Miles. Too bad. (Cast: Ed Harris, Helen Hunt, Paul Newman, and Joanne Woodward.)

See our Reading Guide for Empire Falls.

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