Author: Richard Russo
Paperback: 483 pages
Date Published: 2001
Publisher: Vitage Books (a div of Random House)
Miscellaneous: Empire Falls won the 2002 Pulitizer Prize for Fiction
“Has it ever occurred to you that life is a river, dear boy?” Mrs. Whiting said when Miles sat down opposite her in the gazebo. In asking this question the old woman managed to convey, as with all such queries, that she was not anticipating a response that would enlighten her. Whereas some people’s attitude suggested that perhaps they knew something you didn’t, Mrs. Whiting’s implied that she knew everything you didn’t. She alone had been paying attention, so it was her duty to bring you at least partially up to speed.
–Empire Falls by Richard Russo, page 161
Empire Falls by Richard Russois the multi-faceted and complex tale of the Central Maine town of Empire Falls. Woven together like a rich tapestry, it tells of the cross-generational intersections of the lives of its denizens, with the life of Miles Roby the central focus.
Miles has spent most of his life going with the flow. A devout Catholic, he’s predisposed to motivation-by-guilt and a nagging sensation that everything bad that’s ever happened can somehow, if one looked hard enough, back to him and is his fault. His desire to always do the right thing gives him the unintended air of moral superiority that can be repellent, and the fact that he attended 3 1/2 years of college before returning to Empire Falls when his mother was on her death bed gives him an added perception of intellectual superiority. All of this is not a truth about Miles, only what others sometime perceive about him.
Opposite Miles are Jimmy Minty and Mrs. Whiting. Jimmy Minty, Mr. Empire Falls as he referred to himself, is a police officer and possibly the next Chief of Police. Whereas Miles can seem morally and intellectually superior to the town even though it’s everything he is NOT, Minty is the “everyman”. People may not like him, but at least he’s one of them and knows it. What the town does NOT know is that this “everyman” has keys to each and every lock in Dexter County, a houseful of stolen electronics and no tangible income to explain his ownership of a shiny, new, red Camaro.
Minty’s off-the-book work as Mrs. Whiting’s muscle is, of course, how he affords the car. Think of a Bedford Falls in which George Baily just went along, obligingly, with what Old Man Potter said, and you’d have Empire Falls. Mrs. Whiting is Russo’s answer to Mr. Potter. Incapable of feeling love herself, she has an incredible knack of uncovering that affliction in others and does her best to eradicate it. “Power and Control” are the words by which she lives, and tells Miles that people often confuse will with power, and that the “power” they perceive the lucky few as having is simply that they know what they want in life and go after it.
“You appear to have been visited by some sort of revelation, dear boy,” Mrs. Whiting observed. “Here’s my suggestion, though. Why not think things over? Passionate decisions are seldom very sound.”
“When did you ever feel passion?”
“Well, it’s true I’m seldom swept away like those with more romantic temperaments,” she conceded. “But we are what we are, and what can’t be cured must be endured.”
“What can’t be cured mus be avenged,” Miles said. “Isn’t that what you mean?”
She smiled appreciatively. “Payback is how we endure, dear boy…”
–Empire Falls by Richard Russo, pages 434-435
Another of Miles nemeses, Timmy the Cat, is one of my favorite characters in this book. Timmy, found and adopted by Mrs. Whiting’s daughter Cindy, had, as a small kitten, been placed in a sack with her litter-mates and tossed into the Knox, the river that runs through Empire Falls. She was the lone survivor and never right in the head ever after. Described by Miles in such loving terms as “psychotic” or “homicidal”, Timmy is whispered by the townspeople (usually in the bar and after a few drinks) to be Mrs. Whiting’s familiar. Appearing as if from thin air whenever Mrs. Whiting’s name is spoken, as if the uttering of her mistress’s name was the spell to summon the demon cat. In a way, Timmy is representative of Mrs. Whiting’s nature and how she relates to people, as if she were a cat and they the wounded prey she toyed with until they bored her and she finally ended their lives.
It took me a while to finish Empire Falls, and a bit longer than that to write this review. It is a dense and complex novel, with several sub-plots and sub-stories. There’s Tick, Miles’s daughter, and her steady march to adulthood. Will she become passive and resigned to whatever the fate’s bring like her dad? David Roby, Miles (maybe half) brother, and his life of sobriety after an accident caused by his own drunk driving, rendered his left hand useless. And, of course, there’s the incorrigible Max Roby, Miles father, who’s life philosophy can be condensed into two words, “So What!” Max is always on the look out for the hand out and badgers his son for money, promising him if he’d just give him $500 then he’d take off for the Florida Keys, and he’d be out of Miles’s hair for a whole New England winter. Tempting, Miles thinks, before realizing the old man would just call for more money once he got there.
After considering and weighing Empire Falls by Richard Russo, I came to the understanding that the best way to describe it is that it’s a “grown up book”. Not necessarily for language, though it does have plenty of that, nor for sexual content, ditto, or for violence, though there is animal cruelty and a shooting in it, but rather that it’s the kind of book that rings several emotional and experiential bells that one needs to have lived a little to even begin to catch the nuances and appreciate the full sensations found in the book.
For its intimate and tangible moving portrayal of life in a small town, I give Empire Falls by Richard Russo 4 1/2 out of 5 stars. I cannot, for the life of me, explain why I’m holding that last 1/2 back… perhaps because it’s not a WOW book, but rather, like water slowly flowing along, eroding the rocks and banks slowly and imperceptively over time, until, all at once and a long way down river, it’ll suddenly hit me.
I’ve been watching the HBO mini-series Empire Falls, based on this book. It’s a really good show, and does a good job of staying close to the book, in spirit if not literally. The screenplay was also written by Richard Russo. As for the casting, I wasn’t entirely stoked about Ed Harris as Miles, but I did like Paul Newman’s Max Roby, and thought William Fichtner as Jimmy Minty was SPOT ON. 🙂
and a twofer, this one is a brief “making of” but gives a great feel for the book itself.
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