Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Book Review - Pulitzer Winners - Empire Falls by Richard Russo
I really don’t know why I didn’t read Empire Falls when it was first published or even right after it won the Pulitzer because it was sure to have caught my attention at that time. It might have been because I’d been living in Switzerland and then France for so many years, even going to school there, and I’d been immersing myself in European literature for at least a decade. Contemporary American writers were still “foreign” to me. I’ve been living in the US for several years now, and I’m an American. American literature is my heritage, and lately I’ve had the desire to make a fuller exploration of it. Empire Falls is a book many people have been recommending to me, and it did not let me down.
As in previous books, Russo, in Empire Falls, is writing about small town, blue-collar life, but this time, rather than setting his book in upstate New York, he’s set it in Maine, in the imaginary town of Empire Falls. Empire Falls is one of those small New England towns that never managed to recover after the textile mills moved south. The wealthy Whiting family controlled Empire Falls, and three now defunct factories, for more than a century, and though the patriarch, C.B. Whiting is now deceased, his widow, Francine, ensconced in C.B.’s Spanish style “hacienda” that’s so out of place in New England, still controls what’s left.
The protagonist of Empire Falls isn’t Francine, however, it’s Miles Roby, a forty-two-year-old man who was lured away from college in his senior year by Francine Whiting and back to Empire Falls in order to care for his dying mother, Grace Roby, over Grace’s strenuous objections. Grace, who was employed by Francine Whiting, wanted Miles to escape Empire Falls and make something more productive of his life. Francine, however, prevailed upon Miles to take over management of the Empire Grill when the previous manager died, though if the truth be known, Miles’ crush on a waitress named Charlene was probably far more effective than Francine could ever be. In an effort to keep Miles in the diner, Francine promised to leave the business to him in her will. But why, the reader has to ask, would anyone want it? Like the rest of the businesses in town, the Empire Grill is facing extinction, and Miles knows if he ever were to become the diner’s owner, the only profitable thing to do would be to sell it.
When the book opens, it’s been more than twenty years since Miles left college and returned to Empire Falls, and the diner is far from his only problem. His wife, Janine (Charlene married another, but she’s still around), feels that Miles has been an unsatisfactory partner sexually, so she’s divorcing him in order to marry Walt Comeau, a/k/a the “Silver Fox,” the “preening peacock” owner of the local health club, which may be Empire Falls’ only successful business. And, though Miles is far better suited to parenthood, Janine will get custody of the couple’s only child, a delightful sixteen-year-old daughter named Tick, who has several problems of her own, including a menacing ex-boyfriend and possible anorexia.
I disliked Janine when I first encountered her, and she never did grow on me. I found her to be shallow, vain, and humorless, and I was sorry she’d been portrayed as a woman of such meager depth. It takes courage to leave a marriage of twenty years, especially when the reason is lack of sexual satisfaction. I felt I should have admired Janine, but there’s really nothing admirable about her. Rather than blame Miles for his inattention to his wife, I found myself blaming Janine for being so coarse and dislikable.
Though Janine’s “romance” with Walt has deprived Miles of his home and relegated him to a fume-filled room above the diner, Miles doesn’t seem to bear anyone any ill will. This is highlighted by the fact that Walt spends a great deal of his own free time in the Empire Grill arm-wrestling Miles and asking him to break hundred dollar bills, or playing gin rummy with Horace, another patron of the grill, while preaching about the ill effects the grill’s burgers to the very diners who are eating them.
Miles still has family members who rally round him, however. There’s his younger brother, David, who lost the use of one of his arms in an alcohol-induced accident. Now sober, David helps Miles in the Empire Grill. While Miles is more or less content to maintain the status quo of the grill, David is interested in actually making the restaurant profitable. To that end, he talks Miles into keeping the grill open on weekend nights so they can attract the students and professors in nearly Fairhaven for “International Nights,” which consist of no more than twice-cooked noodles one night and flautas another. And, David wants Miles to persuade Mrs. Whiting to apply for a liquor license, and though Miles knows David is on the right track, he also knows the grill’s profitability is something about which Francine Whiting hasn’t the slightest interest.
Although Grace Roby is dead by the time the book opens, Max Roby, Miles’ father is still alive and kicking, and he’s probably the only person in Empire Falls who does exactly as he pleases. There are no obstacles in life for Max Roby; he abides by no man’s rules. A chain smoker, who has disgusting personal hygiene, Max says what he wants and does what he wants, and if others don’t like it, that’s their problem, not his. At one point, Miles even asks David if he thinks their father has a conscience. “Sure he does,” David replies. “No slave to it, though, is he?” When we meet Max, he’s as unlikable as characters come, but to Russo’s credit, Max does grow on the reader. I know some readers who’ve identified Max as their favorite character. I wasn’t one, but you might like Max more than I did. Truth be told, I did find some of his actions amusing, but I also found him, at times, to be more caricature than true character.
It might seem so at first, but Miles Roby hasn’t entirely let go of this dreams. He spends two weeks each summer on Martha’s Vineyard, the place where he vacationed as a boy, and he’d love to own a restaurant/bookshop there. It’s not in his budget, however, and anyway, life always seems to pull him back to Empire Falls. Still, Martha’s Vineyard exerts a strange pull on Miles as well. As he dreams, he remembers one boyhood trip there and a mysterious man named Charlie Mayne, a close acquaintance of Grace’s. And, as Miles dreams and questions the past, he begins to learn the secrets Grace took with her to her grave, secrets he must know in order to make sense of his life. He begins to unravel the tangled history that’s bound him to the Whiting family and Empire Falls.
Even though I made a few criticisms about the characterization of Max and Janine, for the most part, Russo’s secondary characters, and there are many of them, are beautifully drawn. I was pulled into their story and their lives so easily, and I continued to think of them long after I turned the final page. And Russo extends much compassion and dignity to the people he’s created. No matter how far they stray or what mistakes they make, he appears to respect their humanity, though that doesn’t mean he exempts them from their well deserved, and often humorous, comeuppance.
Russo weaves plot and subplot, and past and present, together wonderfully, as he tempers the seriousness of his book with a wry levity. The only misstep comes late in the novel when a horrific, though well set up, event occurs. I thought the book was so well written, and the denizens of Empire Falls so compelling, that the “shocking incident” was overkill. It simply wasn’t needed. The characters and themes Russo had been developing previously were enough, and they were far more interesting.
Empire Falls is told from the perspective of several of the book’s characters. Russo seems to like omniscient narration, and I’m glad he does. He’s created a big, old fashioned book in Empire Falls, one that depends on great characterization and great storytelling, with none of the gimmicks the post-modern authors often employ. This is just the kind of book I love, sprawling, with many characters and many subplots, and one that takes its time in telling its story. Not that the book is slow. It isn’t, though it does have a small town unhurried feel. As Tick observes at one 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.”
When I was scanning reviews of this book, I noticed that different reviewers would identify different themes. I think that’s only natural in a book of this size and scope. For me, the theme revolves around the difficulty of escaping our personal “family curse.” Every family in Empire Falls seems to have one. The Whiting men all marry a woman like Francine, “the one woman in the world who would regard making them miserable as her life’s noble endeavor.” The Robys all want something better for their children, but that never seems to happen. Grace wanted a better life for Miles, and now Miles wants a better life for Tick. And then there’s Francine Whiting’s minion, the corrupt cop, Jimmy Minty, who’s every bit the bully his own father was. His own son, Zack, though aspiring to be Chief of Police, promises to be just as corrupt as his father. Russo seems to be saying that blood is definitely thicker than water, and in ways we probably haven’t even considered.
Despite my little quibbles, and they are quibbles, I think Empire Falls is as perfect as any book gets. I appreciate the fact that Richard Russo cared more about something that’s becoming a rarity in the literary world – good, old fashioned storytelling and character development – than about the gimmicks offered by those “slim little volumes” that so many minimalist authors today are producing. This is the kind of book that will stay with a reader, the kind of book that he or she will return to from time-to-time, if only to flip through and read selected scenes. You really can’t do better than this book; Empire Falls really is American literature at its finest.
Recommended: Definitely, without hesitation. This is contemporary American literature at its finest.