"Empire Falls" by Richard Russo

In the latest from the author of "Mohawk" and "Nobody's Fool," the residents of a small Maine town survive on simmering feuds, dirty backroom deals and plenty of comic relief.

Published May 21, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

"I mean, if I were so unhappy, wouldn't I know?" asks Miles Roby, the hero of "Empire Falls," Richard Russo's fifth and most ambitious novel yet. The answer, of course, is not necessarily, and one of Russo's great talents is to make us understand how an intelligent 40-year-old man can fail to recognize his own quiet desperation -- and then make us believe that his life can change for the better. Along the way, Russo gives us a panoramic yet nuanced view of the imaginary town of Empire Falls, Maine, showing how the history of one powerful family can become the history of a place. It's the kind of big, sprawling, leisurely novel, full of subplots and vividly drawn secondary characters, that people are always complaining is an endangered species. Yet in part thanks to Russo's deft satiric touch -- much of the book is laugh-out-loud funny -- it never feels too slow or old-fashioned.

Russo's Empire Falls is one of those small Maine towns that never recovered from the migration southward of the textile manufacturing jobs that created it. The wealthy Whiting family controlled the place for over a century, until they abruptly sold off the last of the Empire Mills, leaving half the population unemployed. Francine Whiting, the conniving widow of the ineffectual C.B. Whiting, who committed suicide years ago, still owns most of the town, though the downtown is largely abandoned and there's no new development in sight.

Sad sack Miles contributes to the town's stagnation by running the Empire Grill for Mrs. Whiting. Mrs. Whiting is supposedly leaving the beat-up restaurant to Miles in her will, and in the meantime she's staunchly opposed to making any improvements. It's as if she wants the place to remain dreary out of spite -- much as she seemed to have had some twisted personal motive when she lured Miles away from college and into the job over the protests of his dying mother, the saintly Grace Roby. Grace's greatest hope was that Miles would escape Empire Falls and the small-minded citizens it produces.

Russo takes a wry yet compassionate view of the kind of passivity that has landed Miles where he is. It's never easy, he suggests, to see the long view of your own life. "Under Miles' competent stewardship, the Empire Grill, never terribly profitable, had gone into a long, gentle decline almost imperceptible without the benefit of time lapse photography," he writes, "until one day it was suddenly clear that the diner was unprofitable, and so it had remained for years."

As the novel opens, Mrs. Whiting's manipulations and the Empire Grill's failure are far from the end of Miles' problems. His wife, Janine, has left him for Walt Comeau, the preening owner of a cheesy health club who calls himself the Silver Fox. Walt has taken to frequenting the Empire Grill, challenging Miles to arm-wrestle and asking him to break $100 bills. Miles' daughter, Tick, is in her junior year of high school and seems to be bending under the weight of too many adolescent burdens. She's dealing with a menacing ex-boyfriend as well as the sudden appearance of the odious Comeau, her future stepfather, in her home, while her father is reduced to living in a fume-filled room above the restaurant.

Men like Miles, Russo suggests, are now getting the short end of the stick when it comes to divorce (just as women did in the previous generation). Janine abandoned their marriage, yet she gets to live in their house with her new fiancé, who's renting out his own place and pocketing the checks. And she gets custody of Tick, though Miles is clearly better suited to parenthood. Russo's portrait of the obsessively aerobicized Janine -- she's vain, humorless and about as deep as a mud puddle -- is among the book's most vicious and most hilarious.

Janine may be an obtuse, self-obsessed pain in the neck, yet the novel leaves open the question of whether she is justified in leaving a marriage that gave her no sexual satisfaction. She left Miles, she says, because in 20 years of marriage she had never had an orgasm, and she's not sure that Miles even understands the mechanics involved. For his own part, as Miles comes ruefully to acknowledge, he never loved Janine. The same inertia that keeps him under Mrs. Whiting's thumb led him to marry, and then remain at a comfortable emotional distance from, a woman to whom he is clearly unsuited. Just what would it take, the novel asks, to get someone like Miles, whose life has been distorted by this character flaw, to change things?

There are glimpses of romantic happiness in "Empire Falls," and a few stable long-term bonds, but mainly the novel suggests that people are best off looking elsewhere for consolation. One of those places is religion, and Russo gamely takes on the unfashionable job of showing the emotional pull that the Roman Catholic Church has on someone like Miles. Family ties, if worn lightly, can also be lifesaving, especially when relatives find some shared purpose. (Miles' brother, David, who maimed his arm in an accident after a drug-soaked youth and now works at the Empire Grill, has updated the restaurant's menu and prods Miles to stand up to Mrs. Whiting and expand the business.) But they're often onerous, too (Miles' father is a shabby, exasperating small-time crook, good for laughs but not much else).

As for the vaunted "community" that small towns are said to offer, it amounts, in "Empire Falls," to a few friendships and many more simmering animosities and outright feuds that go back generations. When the town itself explodes in a shocking crime (it's "ripped from today's headlines," as they say, but no less effective for that) and Miles finally seems on the verge of escape, I, for one, was rooting for him to get out of that hellhole, and take his bright, wonderful daughter -- who's surely one of the most appealing adolescents ever to grace the pages of fiction -- with him. But Russo, I think, would have us believe that the more important changes are internal, not geographic, and he makes his case without sentimentality or nostalgia, just compassion for his characters' foibles and deep insight into the startling, sometimes disturbing varieties of human nature.

Our next pick: Another high-octane tale from the author of "Trainspotting"

By Maria Russo

Maria Russo has been a writer and editor at The Los Angeles Times, The New York Observer and Salon, and is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

MORE FROM Maria Russo

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