The prologue to Richard Russo”s fifth novel “Empire Falls” dumps the reader right to the center of tiny Empire Falls, Maine. It takes us into a strange town where the wealthiest citizen, the heir to a textile factory fortune, is building “a mission-style hacienda” along the banks of a central Maine river. It introduces a character who decides to re-route this river because its flow is depositing piles of dead trash (including a decaying moose carcass) into his back yard, giving the place a terrible stench, and who (we are told in the first few pages) will buy a gun “30 years later for the purpose of ending his life.”
But our introduction to C.B. Whiting, his construction plans and his history is a brief one. Immediately, in the first paragraph of the first proper chapter, we are thrown 40 years forward, into the world of the Empire Grill and its manager Miles Roby.
This quick shift back and forth is characteristic of “Empire Falls.” The trick of Russo”s brilliant literary construction is the ability to find a page-turning means of bringing the past and present of each character together. And Russo does this nearly perfectly.
Empire Falls is a dying town. A former seat of booming textile mills and a healthy downtown, it has been rocked by Whiting”s sale of the mills to multi-national corporations (everyone”s favorite enemy) and the inevitable emigration of a nearby county”s population. Miles Roby is undoubtedly at the center of this larger-than-an-Altman-movie character list, and his relationships with Mrs. Francine Whiting, C.B.”s widowed wife, provides much of the book”s action.
Miles is the manager of the Empire Grill. Mrs. Whiting is the grill”s owner and the owner of seemingly everything else in the town. However, their relationship is much more convoluted than a simple boss-employee one. It is rooted in Miles” mother, still a looming figure in his middle-aged life, in the town”s rocky past and in other things (things which, if revealed, could ruin the reading experience)
Though it is the central relationship, it is certainly not the only one. There is Miles” relationship with his daughter Tick, a high school sophomore, aspiring artist and virtual anorexic in love with a boy she held hands with one night. There is Miles” relationship with his father Max, a man who ignores the food accumulating in his beard, refuses to “shake” after urinating and whose only care in the world is scamming beer and enough money to get to Key West. There is a repressed homosexual priest”s relationship with an overtly Catholic, overtly gay artist. There is an ex-wife, a reporter with a blue cyst bubbling from his forehead, a high school art teacher whose favorite painter is a public access channel artist who always completes an entire painting in exactly one hour the list goes on.
In “Empire Falls,” Russo creates a complex, expansive story that actually fits holds interest for almost 500 pages. His prose is simple, but beautiful and his voice is original, yet somehow familiar. He marries the personal feel of the first-person perspective with the detached feel of the third person. This is a very difficult trick to pull off and Russo does occasionally fail. Most of the time, however, he manages by focusing each chapter on a certain character and allowing that character a turn as the limited third-person narrator. Avoiding a consistently outside omniscient narration and the constrictions of a limited third or first person voice allows Russo to build a far-reaching, vivid picture of the town and population of Empire Falls.
Often, the mammoth scope of the book seems to overwhelm Russo. Plot lines sometimes dead-end (see the homosexual priest story) and sometimes Miles” painstaking realizations (things he”s been so close to figuring out for years) seem painfully obvious to the reader. But in the end, “Empire Falls” stands as a remarkably captivating piece of literature, standing up to the acclaim it”s received and providing a look at the intricacies of an aging New England town.