Mr. Russo has turned Empire Falls into the setting for a rich, humorous, elegantly constructed novel rooted in the bedrock traditions of American fiction … Deceptively casual in tone and modest in scope, Empire Falls begins with a beautifully wrought prologue in which a rich man, one C. B. Whiting, pits himself against divine will and assumes he can win ... In this pre-modern, irony-free (despite the priceless dialogue) world, small-town neighbors actually affect one another through their actions and frustrations. And this is a book, however lighthearted and funny, that means business when it contemplates the sight of the church steeple. That Miles means to help paint the steeple but fears heights, just as he cannot seem to rise out of Empire Falls, is another condition diagnosed by Mr. Russo with a gratifyingly light touch. This book works like a prism, regarding the same people and events from different perspectives until they are finally, deeply understood.
Russo knows his characters too well to allow them the luxury of victimhood or to indulge in the grim determinism of some of his peers. His humane sympathy for weakness and self-deception – a sympathy extended even to the manipulative Mrs. Whiting and her minion, a dimwitted policeman named Jimmy Minty – does not rule out stern satiric judgment. The people of Empire Falls are not held down simply by fate or by their own bad choices but by the active collaboration of their neighbors and loved ones … Russo's command of his story is unerring, but his manner is so unassuming that his mastery is easy to miss. He satisfies every expectation without lapsing into predictability, and the last section of the book explodes with surprises that also seem, in retrospect, like inevitabilities. As the pace quickens and the disparate threads of the narrative draw tighter, you find yourself torn between the desire to rush ahead and the impulse to slow down.
Like his hometown, the protagonist of Richard Russo's latest novel, Empire Falls, seems battered and gun-shy, maybe even doomed for the scrap heap. Empire Falls – a generation ago the thriving base of a timber and textile company – is now blemished by abandoned factories and boarded-up stores. Once-mighty Whiting Enterprises has been reduced to an elderly widowed termagant, Mrs. Whiting, with a grown daughter, Cindy, warehoused in a distant mental hospital. The townspeople, deprived of good jobs, bereft of hope, make do on bitterness and regret … Richard Russo layers these tangled relationships into a richly satisfying portrait of a man within a defining community. Not a stylist, the author seems determined to subordinate style to honest and compassionate storytelling. That Empire Falls resonates so deeply is a measure of its unexpected truths.
Russo gives us a panoramic yet nuanced view of the imaginary town of Empire Falls, Maine, showing how the history of one powerful family can become the history of a place. It’s the kind of big, sprawling, leisurely novel, full of subplots and vividly drawn secondary characters, that people are always complaining is an endangered species … There are glimpses of romantic happiness in Empire Falls, and a few stable long-term bonds, but mainly the novel suggests that people are best off looking elsewhere for consolation. One of those places is religion, and Russo gamely takes on the unfashionable job of showing the emotional pull that the Roman Catholic Church has on someone like Miles. Family ties, if worn lightly, can also be lifesaving, especially when relatives find some shared purpose.
Empire Falls holds the fading culture of small-town life in a light that’s both illuminating and searing. It captures the interplay of past and present, comedy and tragedy, nation and individual in the tradition of America’s greatest books … Just as the past lingers around Empire Falls, italicized chapters rise up in the main story to trace the strange involvement of Miles’s family with the Whitings. These episodes, tinted with gothic motifs and punctured with tragedy, emphasize the tremors of will and affection that continue to quiver in the survivors … The pressure that directs the Knox River to dump debris along the banks of Empire Falls is no more powerful than the urges of these alienated people to wreak havoc on those nearby. Throughout this mammoth book, Russo describes the politics of town, school, and family with a sense of moral outrage, tempered by comic appreciation of the grotesque.
Russo brings as much life and dignity to the minor characters in Empire Falls as he does to the key players: one of the reasons the book works on so many levels … The plots and subplots in Empire Falls are as numerous as the secondary characters, though all of these subplots hinge on a single theme: the generational bloodsucking of the Whitings and the subsequent repercussions on a seemingly doomed New England town. Empire Falls is a stunning, tragicomic portrait of the lives contained there. Russo's dialog snaps and his descriptions resonate but it's his understanding of humanity and his ability to portray his characters with equal measures of dignity, grace and humor that quietly astounds. Empire Falls is a perfectly rendered portrait of small town, blue collar life.
Interestingly enough, the town of Empire Falls is as much a character in this book as it is a setting. Or maybe it would be more precise to say that the town could also be seen as a kind of attire (which is interesting given the town’s chief source of prosperity). Through sparse bits of flashback and dialog, we piece together several decades of its history … All of this might get tiresome were it not for Russo’s ability to weave amusing subplots into the story. He does a very good job of tempering the serious subject matter with levity … Having said this, the book is nearly ruined near the end when a despicable teen-age character shows up at school with a gun and shoots a number of classmates. Not that this event is beyond the interest of literature, but that such a horrific event is treated as a mere subplot.
A major clue to Russo's goals lies in the multiple meanings of the novel's title, which not only designates the small-town Maine setting, but also the author's ambitious intent to illustrate the traumatic transition of America itself, from changing economic issues (beginning with the rise and fall of a textile mill and its millionaire benefactors) to personal matters. Empire Falls also focuses on the dissolution and disillusion of the American family, and the futile but comforting lies people tell themselves even as things fall apart … Russo always knows how to mix humor and tragedy, but the balance has never seemed better realized or more moving.
In his biggest, boldest novel yet, [Russo] 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 … 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.
Russo’s genius for loosely episodic storytelling hasn’t faded, but here it’s expertly yoked to several smartly paced parallel plots, whose origins and ramifications are spelled out in extended italicized flashbacks (as well as in a moving explanatory epilogue)—and focus in turn on the unhappy marriage and early death of Miles’s beautiful mother Grace, the slow-burning fuse that is Tick’s nerdy classmate John Voss (whose loneliness triggers the story’s heart-tugging climax), and the skeletons carefully hidden in the Whiting mansion’s many closets.