A Twitter user with the handle @writing_class tweeted this picture:
That’s a perfect way to describe how I’ve been feeling about everything I’ve been reading lately, Empire Falls by Richard Russo being no exception.
In Empire Falls, a mild-mannered but frustrated Boomer protagonist watches his life fading away. He wonders how to reach for more than running a diner in the small, fading town he never really left, full of people he grew up with. Over the course of the book, he begins to understand things about his past and how people in the town may be more strangely interconnected than he first suspected, and he sees that he will have to fight to give his daughter something better.
Russo’s style is dry. You won’t get a lot of editorializing from the author, certainly. But that’s not necessarily a knock. The thoughts and speech and actions of the characters are what move the book, and the author does a really great job of letting the conversations sculpt the characters instead of their stories or the author’s description. His style’s ancestor is Hemingway, and a more recent comparison I’d make is to Elizabeth Strout. The main thing that sets him apart is humor. Russo is funny, in a serious way. This shows up right near the beginning of the book:
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.
And the characters he’s really poured love into (those will be obvious when you read the book) are immensely snarky. They’re passive aggressive and get walked all over, but it’s great when they talk back. It’s another way he puts humor into the book.
This story moves very slowly, and Russo is a quiet writer. Much like his characters, you have to listen up to hear him.
Miles Roby and his daughter Tick are the previously mentioned characters the author loves. Really, nearly everyone else in the book is perfectly hateable. Janine, Miles’ ex-wife, is vapid and childish, though it’s sometimes easy to take her side when you see what she’s been handed. Her fiancee (who likes to call himself the Silver Fox) is a preening boar. Jimmy Minty, the town cop, is close to pure evil–a result of crippling insecurity and a never-ending persecution complex. Ug, and Miles’ father Max is just insufferable. He’s so pathetic and obnoxious that it almost makes it hard to get through the book. Luckily, Miles and Tick are there to quietly hate on everyone under their breath for our amusement.
In this fading, formerly industrial world located in rural Maine, there’s still a Rockefeller figure that owns half the town. She, too, is pretty evil, but she’s very fun to read. Clever, jaded, and sharp as a tack, this old queen of Empire Falls plays puppetmaster throughout most of the story. The plot involving her, Miles’ mother, and the old mill-running family is the real draw of the book, but there are a number of good things happening throughout. There’s a strand that follows Janine and one that follows Tick at school. There’s of course the day-to-day for Miles, though that’s hardly interesting. And maybe that’s the point.
The pulse behind all the characters in the book is that they feel trapped in a town that’s dying and the’re powerless to do anything except watch minute after minute go by, everything always decaying–fast enough to depress you but so slow enough to be boring. That’s what molds all the characters into who they are.
If they made Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” into a book, Empire Falls would be it.
Miles retells a story from his childhood, when he and his mother went to Martha’s Vineyard and she met someone that made her blossom. The vacation, as told from the child’s perspective, reveals so much–including Miles’ fascination with the place as an adult. It’s really beautifully written, and I can vividly remember much of that chapter because it was told in a way that was so memorable.
Who Should Read the Book
Not everyone. As I said, the book is slow. The characters are largely infuriating and not at all a joy to experience. Even Miles is a frustrating character to read. It’s hard not to want to shake him.
But despite all this, I loved Empire Falls. I think a lot could be said for the symbolism of the river that the powerful family in the book tries to reroute–so much of what makes Empire Falls tick is how fate and free will plays a part in the characters’ lives. There’s a great discussion to be had there, and if I were better at blogging more frequently, I’d love to have started it.
The people who will enjoy this are people who like minimalist style and slow-moving plots. Think slightly faster than The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is a long book with lots going on but a base plot that could be boiled down to a sentence. It’s a subtle book, minus the kick-you-in-the-face climax. Deep thinkers and introverts will connect. People who like a lot of zest and action will absolutely not. And that’s okay.
FWIW (My Opinion)
This was a sensitive, sad piece with a lot of complexity and just the right amount of straight-faced humor to not make things too maudlin. I really enjoyed some of the more undercover strings running through the text. This puppy could really come alive for people through discussion and analysis.
Have fun getting “Peter Frampton Comes Alive” out of your head now. Wait, here.
Start humming. That’s really the song you should leave Empire Falls with.