by Richard Russo
Published by Knopf
512 pages, 2001
End of Empire
Reviewed by Sienna Powers
Like most books named for cities and towns -- fictional and otherwise -- the cast of characters in Empire Falls is large and convoluted. If Richard Russo's latest novel were less well plotted and engaging, you'd need a score sheet to keep track. As it is, Russo weaves the reader, quickly and tightly, into a community of personalities as easy to remember as your next door neighbor.
Empire Falls is a tarnished Maine town. It rose to the height of whatever glory it was to attain with the industrial revolution. Peaking out with the addition of the shirt factory and when the scion of the town's leading family built an ersatz Mediterranean mansion on the banks of the filthy river his family has been polluting for three generations. That, as we learn in the book's prologue, was then. In the present, the same leading family, the Whitings, still own half the town or more, but their holdings and their personal circumstances have been reduced by time and a town that seems almost to be eating itself in an effort to stay alive and afloat. The only Whitings still around as the book opens are Francine, now a sexagenarian, widow of C.B. Whiting and the bane of his existence when he was alive and their broken daughter, Cindy. Of C.B., Russo tells us that, "Later in life, he was fond of remarking, rather ruefully, that he always had the last word in all differences of opinion with his wife, and that -- two words, actually -- was, 'Yes, dear.'"
Before the story even gets going, C.B. empties a handgun into his mouth, presumably, one gathers from the information given thus far, to escape the influence of what appears to be a family curse: "Whiting men, all of whom seemed to be born with sound business sense, each invariably gravitated, like moths to a flame, toward the one woman in the world who would regard making them utterly miserable as her life's noble endeavor, a woman who would remain bound to her husband with the same grim tenacity that bound nuns to the suffering Christ."
In the present day, C.B.'s widow seems none the worse for the loss of her husband:
... Mrs. Whiting herself ... looked like a woman who'd been enough of a good sport to give old age a try, but then decided against it, much preferring youth. Somehow she'd negotiated for its return, not all at once, of course, but rather gradually, a minute, an hour, a day at a time, the clock hands ticking backwards until, presumably, she arrived at a satisfactory vantage. Even spookier, Mrs. Whiting also radiated -- Miles had no idea how -- a sexuality that was alive and ticking. Something about her knowing smile hinted that she'd gotten laid more recently than Miles had, and that she knew it. As if she might even have considered him, briefly, for a sexual partner, then rejecting the notion.
Miles Roby is the operator of the Empire Grill, one of the last businesses left in a town that's main sources of employment -- the myriad Whiting factories -- have been shut down. The few businesses that remain all seem to be either spiraling downwards towards the inevitable, or owned by Mrs. Whiting, as is the Empire Grill. This enterprise has been losing money for more than a decade, as Miles can attest. However, and somewhat mysteriously, Mrs. Whiting seems disinclined to either give the go-ahead for improvements that would aid the restaurant's income -- like a liquor license -- or just shut it down.
At middle-age, Miles' life seems stuck in some weird holding pattern. His wife has left him, presumably out of sheer boredom, and his dreams of leaving the town for something better have long since evaporated. His one hope is that his teenaged daughter, Tick, will broaden her world more than her father has: something that seems to be unlikely unless Miles himself makes some drastic move. Waiting for this drastic measure -- for the placid and somewhat plodding Miles to explode with the weight of all he carries -- provides a great deal of the book's tension.
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. Miles' father, Max Roby, is a bit of a derelict. At one point, Miles asks his brother, David, if their father has a conscience. "Sure he does," David replies. "No slave to it, though, is he?"
Miles' soon-to-be-ex-wife, Janine, has shed 50 pounds as well as a husband and started a new life as Empire Falls' aerobics instructor. Her new fiancé is one of the area's few successful businessmen: he owns a gym but seems to enjoy spending his spare time at the Empire Grill, using his presence to torment the man whose wife he stole.
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. | June 2001
Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.