Russo's characters are a rich combination of humor and despondency. They inhabit minds that have 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 poignant.....
A LitLovers LitPick (Nov '07)
A rich, humorous, elegantly constructed novel rooted in the bedrock traditions of American fiction. [T]his is easily Russo's most seductive book thus far.
Janet Maslin - The New York Times
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.
Ron Charles - Christian Science Monitor
Writer Tom Wolfe charged that "the American novel is dying, not of obsolescence, but of anorexia." The remedy? "Novelists with the energy and the verve to approach America in the way her moviemakers do," with "huge appetites and mighty, unslaked thirsts." For a feast of social realism, the hungry reader might turn to Richard Russo's latest work, a multigenerational epic of rich detail, memorable character and indelible plot. This is the sort of big-theme novel that complainers maintain no one is writing any more, an ambitious throwback to an era when novelists more often looked outward than inward for inspirational nourishment.
In Empire Falls, which is set in a Maine town teetering toward oblivion, Russo introduces a cross section of society's also-rans; trapped between a past of minimal opportunity and a future unimaginable as anything better, characters settle for diminished returns on the dreams of their parents. The lay of this fictional land will be familiar to admirers of Russo's previous books about the blue-collar Northeast, including his 1986 debut, Mohawk, and its 1988 sequel, The Risk Pool, as well as 1993's Nobody's Fool and 1997's hilarious Straight Man.
Even if the title Empire Falls (it's also the name of the town) is a bit too dramatic or obvious, the central imagery of the river in this story finds Russo imaginatively engaging and challenging his readers. "Has it ever occurred to you that life is a river, dear boy?" the controlling heiress, responsible for the closing of both the town's mill and its factory, asks the novel's protagonist. "I suspect that's occurred to anyone who's ever seen a river, Mrs.Whiting," replies Miles Roby. In the novel's prologue, Mrs. Whiting's husband attempts the folly of changing the river's course to suit his whim. The rest of the book explores the possibility of changing the course of one's life, which is perhaps as great a folly—but maybe not, as Miles eventually dares to consider.
Miles, the book's moral compass, abandons a college education that offers a life beyond Empire Falls in order to care for his ailing mother. He comes home to run the Empire Grill for Mrs. Whiting, who has promised him ownership when she dies, though he doubts that she ever will (die, that is) or that the grill would be worth anything if she does. Paralyzed with obligation, he proceeds by numbness rather than nerve, acceding to "the strange decisions a man discovers he's made by not really making them." Miles' only hope—that his teenage daughter will not find herself trapped in Empire Falls—is marred by irony: Miles' mother vowed the same for him.
The soul of the novel lies in the relationship between Miles and his daughter, Tick, whose high school experiences provide parallels with her father's. Easily the most perceptive character (and the only one whose chapters are written in the present tense rather than the past), Tick wonders whether all adults suffer from "some sort of collective amnesia" or whether they are just "fundamentally dishonest." Russo's depiction of adolescence is particularly acute, balancing the love that the father and daughter share with the distance that separates them. And while Miles empathizes with his daughter's generation, he understands the limits to his understanding.
"My God, he couldn't help thinking, how terrible it is to be that age, to have emotions so near the surface that the slightest turbulence causes them to boil over," Miles reflects on the teenage temperament. "That, very simply, was what adulthood must be all about—acquiring the skill to bury things more deeply." Such turbulence moves from the plot's periphery to its climactic center, as parents who have failed to save themselves face the challenge of saving their children. Derided by his wife as "the human rut," Miles must accept the responsibility of salvaging his own future if there is any hope for Tick's. He finds the key to that salvation buried deep in the past, discovering the secrets of a town that he thought he'd known as well as his reflection in the mirror.
For all of its traditional pleasures, this is very much a novel of its time, building to a crescendo that calls to mind a contemporary tragedy with a terrifying immediacy. Though the conclusion is as riveting as any modern-day headline, the story's breadth over the span of decades makes it impossible to dismiss its developments as sensationalist plot twists. The narrative progression from borderline farce to bittersweet tragedy, set against the backdrop of a failing factory town, reflects an understanding of what makes seemingly drastic acts not just possible but perhaps inevitable.
Striving to sustain the interplay between the tragic and comic elements of the story, this book doesn't always sustain the graceful precision characteristic of smaller, more carefully wrought novels, ones that concern themselves with interior worlds rather than the world at large. What distinguishes Russo's work is the generosity of spirit he extends to both his characters and the reader. While some novelists satisfy their ambitions by tickling the brain, Russo feeds the hungry heart.
Don Mcleese - Book Magazine
In his biggest, boldest novel yet, the much-acclaimed author of Nobody's Fool and Straight Man subjects a full cross-section of a crumbling Maine mill town to piercing, compassionate scrutiny, capturing misfits, malefactors and misguided honest citizens alike in the steady beam of his prose. Wealthy, controlling matriarch Francine Whiting lives in an incongruous Spanish-style mansion across the river from smalltown Empire Falls, dominated by a long-vacant textile mill and shirt factory, once the center of her husband's family's thriving manufacturing dominion. In his early 40s, passive good guy Miles Roby, the son of Francine's husband's long-dead mistress, seems helpless to escape his virtual enslavement as longtime proprietor of the Whiting-owned Empire Grill, the town's most popular eatery, which Francine has promised to leave him when she dies. Miles's wife, Janine, is divorcing him and has taken up with an aging health club entrepreneur. In her senior year in high school, their creative but lonely daughter, Tick, is preoccupied by her parents' foibles and harassed by the bullying son of the town's sleazy cop who, like everyone else, is a puppet of the domineering Francine. Struggling to make some sense of her life, Tick tries to befriend a boy with a history of parental abuse. To further complicate things, Miles's brother, David, is suspected of dealing marijuana, and their rascally, alcoholic father is a constant annoyance. Miles and David's secret plan to open a competing restaurant runs afoul of Francine just as tragedy erupts at the high school. 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.
People don't mind imposing on a nice guy like Miles Roby. Francine Whiting, for instance, owns most of the struggling mill town, including the Empire Grill that Miles manages for her, though she won't agree to the liquor license that might make it profitable. Francine's disabled daughter, Cindy, has a lifelong crush on Miles and has twice attempted suicide over him. His wife has left him for a flashy jerk, a health club owner who comes to the grill daily to taunt Miles; his ne'er-do-well father constantly nags him for handouts; and his daughter Tick seems to care about Miles, but she is navigating the treacherous shoals of high school, with the school bully determined to win her back and a complete outcast dependent on her for friendship. Reader Ron McLarty doesn't get the Maine accent quite right, but his performance will surely prove among the best of the year. Packed with heart and with wonderfully drawn characters (and a good deal funnier than it sounds), Empire Falls is an excellent choice for any library. —John Hiett, Iowa City P.L.
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