Empire Falls


Richard Russo




Date Reviewed:

August 28, 2020

mpire Falls won the Pulitzer Prize, which means it is an overly hyped boring book, right? Because only the most tedious novels win the top prizes. I haven't had much luck reading Booker Prize winners. But - surprise - despite winning a major award, Empire Falls is actually a pretty good read. It is a story about a dying town, Empire Falls, in central Maine. The factories have closed, and the remaining citizens are scraping by. For the longest time, I assumed that the novel was set in the 1960s or 1970s (it had that feel to me), but actually the main action is set in the year 2000.

Empire Falls is primarily about characters. The protagonist is Miles Roby. Miles works in the Empire Grill, and has for the last 20 years. He came home from college without completing his degree in order to be with his dying mother. His mother pleaded with Miles to return to school and finish his education, but Miles ignored her dying wish, and here he is, a score of years later, managing a grill that barely has any customers. Miles is a likeable character - he is compassionate, hard working and an all around good guy. But I couldn't help but wish Miles would take a stand against some of the many unsavory characters in this novel - his dad Max, his soon-to-be-ex-wife Janine, and the wealthy widow, Francine Whiting, who owns many of the companies in Empire Falls, including the Empire Grill that Miles manages.

Miles' family figures prominently in the cast of characters. His teenage daughter, Christina (nicked named "Tick", for reasons that I missed) is a mature high schooler, going through all the usual uncertainty of popularity and appearance, is probably the most likeable character in the novel. Mile's mother, Grace, is dead of cancer when the novel opens, but there are plenty of flashbacks showing her through Miles' child eyes, which reveals Grace as another sympathetic character. Miles' brother David also works at the Empire Grill, becomes more grounded and sensible as the novel goes along.

There are plenty of unlikable characters in this novel. Miles' father, Max - is he meant to be a rogue, a loveable scamp? I wished Miles would just punch him in the nose and tell him to get out of his life. I did not find one thing endearing about Max, and wished he would go south to Florida and just disappear from the narrative. Janine is in the midst of a divorce with Miles, she has an affair with the annoying Walt Comeau, and she has decided sex with Walt is so great that she will divorce Miles and immediately marry the impressive Walt (who is portrayed as a total phoney) - but hey, Walt has money and that is attractive. James Minty is a crooked cop (I never understood why he wasted so much time sitting in his police cruiser outside the Empire Grill - is Minty trying to intimidate Miles??? Why? So that "Tick" will date his awful son Zach?) who has an equally awful teenage son, Zach - the quarterback of the high school football team. "Tick" has stopped dating him, and that is too much of a blow to his fragile high school ego.

The true villain of the novel is Francine Whiting (and her satanic cat). Francine has a cold heart; she is ruthless and perceives enemies everywhere. Because of her great wealth, Francine can put her evil machinations into effect, making life miserable for the other residents of Empire Falls - acting cruelly appears to be the whole point for Francine. Francine has a crippled daughter Cindy who is madly in love with Miles, but although Miles repeatedly and gently turns her down, Cindy's ardor never dims, and Miles ends up in uncomfortable situations because he won't be cruel.

Russo puts all of these characters (and plenty more) into Empire Falls and the reader watches them interact. There is a lot of time spent at the Empire Grill, and at the high school, and just about town. Not big plot developments, but the conversations kept me reading, and the revelations about the past and people's motivations add up to a plot that, in the last few chapters, has a whole lot of unexpected stuff happen.

I don't know why, but I expected to absolutely love Empire Falls. Heaps of hype are lauded on all of Russo's books, and this lead me to believe that I would be reading something unforgettable. This novel turned out to be pretty good, there is a lot to like, and I didn't stop reading it once I started... but it wasn't so great that I would hand it to a friend with the admonishment that "You cannot miss this one!". Maybe I will try Straight Man or Nobody's Fool next, both are described as funny, and that sounds promising.