Empire Falls (2001), by Richard Russo, is set in a small, working-class town that has fallen upon hard times. Unlike Russo's previous novels, which are set in upstate New York, this novel is set in Maine, where Russo lived for several years prior to its composition.
The themes explored in this novel are not peculiar to Maine, however. The story of longsuffering Miles Roby, trapped in Empire Falls by the mysterious motives of Francine Whiting, by economic necessity, and by his deep love for both his teenage daughter and his late mother, explores universal questions about how much is determined by free will and how much is determined by nature. The novel also examines whether the rich and powerful suffer consequences from their exploitation of those who are less fortunate, and it inquires if people ought to forfeit their own happiness in order to benefit others whom they love.
Distinguished by its rich characterization and Russo's trademark sense of humor, Empire Falls was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2002.
Richard Russo was born James Richard Russo on July 15, 1949, in Johnstown, New York, but he grew up in Gloversville, an upstate New York town with many of the same difficulties as the fictional Empire Falls, Maine. The town's major industry—the
making of gloves—began to decline after World War II, when women ceased wearing gloves on an everyday basis. The author's father, James Russo, worked at a wide array of jobs, including glove cutting and construction work. After leaving Gloversville to attend college at the University of Arizona, Russo worked in construction with his father during the summers.
At the University of Arizona, Russo earned a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in English and then began work on his Ph.D. in literature. As he neared the end of his dissertation, however, he began having second thoughts about his choice of study. Russo began writing fiction. Energized by this change in direction, he was able to complete his dissertation and earn his Ph.D. in 1980. He got an M.F.A. in creative writing the following year.
Russo supported himself by teaching at various universities while he penned his first three novels. The first of these, Mohawk (1986), is set in a fictional upstate New York tannery town (much like Gloversville) and populated by working-class characters. His second novel, The Risk Pool (1988), also set in the town of Mohawk, tells the story of Ned Hall and his complicated relationship with his father, a ne'er-do-well who abandons the family early in Ned's childhood and later returns. Russo claims this to be the most personal of all his novels, as his own father was dying at the time he was writing it. This second novel was more widely acclaimed than his first. The Risk Pool won the annual award for fiction from the Society of Midland Authors.
Russo's third novel, Nobody's Fool (1993), is set in another fictional upstate berg, North Bath, New York. Nobody's Fool represents a turning point in Russo's career: it was the first of his novels to be made into a motion picture. The movie also introduced Russo and Paul Newman; Newman became a champion of Russo's work and later produced and starred in the 2005 HBO miniseries of Empire Falls. The success of the movie of Nobody's Fool brought Russo's work widespread attention, which ultimately allowed Russo to leave Colby College, where he was teaching, and become a full-time writer in the late 1990s. While he was still teaching at Colby, however, he wrote his fourth novel, Straight Man (1997), a satire of academia.
After retiring from teaching, Russo wrote Empire Falls (2001), considered by many critics to be his most ambitious work to that date, and Russo's ambition was rewarded in 2002 with a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. The novel was also named by Library Journal as one of the Best Books of 2001.
In 2002, Russo published a well-received volume of short stories, entitled The Whore's Child. As of 2006, Russo was working on his next novel at home in Maine.
C. B. Whiting is the last in the line of Whiting males. The Whiting dynasty has ruled the town of Empire Falls for generations, owning the town's major employers, the shirt factory and the textile mill. Charles Beaumont Whiting grows up in privilege in the grandiose Whiting mansion. In his twenties, he moves to Mexico, where he dreams of being a poet and painter. However, his father summons him back to Maine to take over the management of the shirt factory. Ten years later, resigned to his life in Maine, Charles decides to build himself a hacienda across the river from Empire Falls. Before construction begins, however, he notices that great quantities of trash keep washing up on the banks of the river, on his future doorstep. Hired analysts explain that the "design" of the river, "one of God's poorer efforts," is to blame for the problem. To improve the flow of the river, a channel is blasted through a strip of land Charles buys from a poor family named Robideaux.
The Whiting men have a common curse: they share their lives with women who make them miserable. C. B. Whiting chooses Francine Robideaux.
Part One: Chapters 1-8
In current day Empire Falls, the Empire Grill is a small diner run by protagonist Miles Roby, but owned (as much of Empire Falls is) by Francine Whiting. The shirt factory and the textile mill have been closed for over twenty years, but the town and the Empire Grill limp onward.
Miles and his daughter Tick are readjusting to Empire Falls after their annual trip to Martha's Vineyard, made possible by Miles's college friends who own a house there. Tick laments that she has no friends since she broke up with the volatile Zack Minty. Miles does his best to comfort her while coping with life at the Grill: the rundown dishwasher, a fry cook who has gone missing on his annual bender, and diner regulars such as Walt Comeau (also known as the Silver Fox), the loud boastful proprietor of the town's health club, who is sleeping with Miles's soon-to-be-ex wife.
Miles is a faithful parishioner of St. Catherine's, and in his spare time, he is painting the exterior of the church for free. He is good friends with Father Mark, the younger of the two priests at the parish; the elder, Father Tom, is senile. Miles and Father Mark chat over a cup of coffee when Father Tom enters and calls Miles a "peckerhead," and his mother—who has been dead for twenty years—a "whore." Miles attributes the outburst to Tom's dementia. Still, it causes him to think back on his mother and her untimely death of cancer.
Francine Whiting now controls what is left of the Whiting empire, since her husband took his own life over twenty years earlier. The same afternoon that Miles is accosted by Father Tom, Miles runs into Mrs. Whiting. She asks him about his recent trip and if he knows why he keeps going there every year. Miles replies that it is because his friends have a house there. Mrs. Whiting cryptically quotes from The Great Gatsby and then dismisses him with a wave of her hand.
Miles's wife, Janine, is now living in their house with Walt Comeau, while Miles is living in a tiny apartment over the Empire Grill. Janine's main attachment to Walt is sex. After twenty years of marriage to Miles, Janine at forty had her first orgasm with Walt and is determined to make up for all the sex she has missed. Janine recently lost fifty pounds and is now an aerobics instructor at Walt's health club.
Tick, Janine and Miles's daughter, is in high school. Her favorite subject is art, and she has rearranged her schedule to accommodate it, by eating lunch alone in the cafeteria during sixth period. In art class, Tick sits at a table with her only friend, Candace, and John Voss, a silent boy who wears mismatched thrift-shop clothing. Candace carves her boyfriend's name on her chair with a stolen Exacto knife and accidentally slashes her thumb open. Tick faints at the sight. When she regains consciousness she spots the Exacto knife on the floor and slips it into her backpack before her teacher discovers it.
- Empire Falls was adapted as a two-part miniseries on HBO in 2005, starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Ed Harris, and Helen Hunt. The film won a Golden Globe Award for Best Miniseries of the 2005-2006 television season. As of 2006, this mini-series was available on DVD from HBO Home Video.
- Empire Falls was made available as an audio book, read by Ron McLarty and released by HarperAudio on audiocassette in 2001. As of 2006, this same audio book was also available as a download from www.audible.com.
Miles's father, Max, is a seventy-year-old reprobate with a general disregard for niceties such as tact, personal hygiene, and integrity. Max badgers Miles to let him help paint St. Cat's, so he can make enough money to go to the Florida Keys for the winter. Miles points out that he is not getting paid. While arguing this point at the local donut shop one morning, they are joined by Jimmy Minty, an Empire Falls policeman Miles has disliked since childhood. Devious and spiteful, Jimmy always puts on an outward show of down-home friendliness. When Jimmy tells Miles to warn his brother David to be careful, because "Everybody knows he's growing marijuana," Miles loses his temper and tells him to shut up.
The idea that David could be growing marijuana, however, is not so far-fetched. David has had his problems with drugs and alcohol. Three years before, David, drunk, drove his car into a ravine. The accident ruined his arm but sobered him up. Now David's idea to serve ethnic dinners at the Empire Grill—one night Chinese, another Mexican— has boosted business and allowed the Grill to show a slight profit for the first time in years. After one particularly good evening, David suggests that they should petition Mrs. Whiting for a liquor license or go into business with Bea, Miles's mother-in-law, whose bar has an unused kitchen. Miles expresses his doubts. Angered by the negative response, David reminds Miles how heartbroken their mother would be to know that twenty years after her death, Miles was still running the Empire Grill.
Part One concludes with a flashback to a pivotal event in Miles's childhood, a trip that he and his mother took to Martha's Vineyard. They stay in a small cottage near the beach. Beautiful Grace is approached by numerous men on the island, but she rebuffs them. They eat every night at the cheapest restaurant they can find, where Miles eats steamer clams by the basket. One night, however, they have dinner in the main dining room, an expensive place, and Grace wears a new white dress. Miles complains loudly that steamer clams are not on the menu, and Charlie Mayne, who is eating alone at a neighboring table, suggests that he try the Clams Casino. To Miles's surprise, Grace invites him to join them for dinner.
After dinner Charlie takes them for a speedy ride in his yellow sports car, ending in a spot overlooking the beach, where the sun is just setting. Miles asks to go to the beach, and his mother agrees. When he returns, he spies his mother resting her head on Charlie Mayne's shoulder.
The next day, Miles is angry with his mother. He announces that he is going to tell Max about Charlie Mayne. His mother tells him he will have to wait for Max to get out of jail, because he has been arrested for being a public nuisance. Miles storms out, and while he is sitting on the beach, Charlie Mayne approaches and tries to talk to him, saying that everyone deserves a chance to be happy. When Miles asserts that his mother "is happy," Charlie replies, "I was talking about me."
The next day they leave on the ferry. Grace is in tears, and Miles, seeing her distress, promises her he will not tell Max.
Part Two: Chapters 9-14
Miles is summoned to the Whiting hacienda. Mrs. Whiting claims she has a surprise for him. When he arrives, he sees that the surprise is Cindy Whiting, home from her latest stint in the state mental facility. In her early childhood, Cindy was hit by a car and crippled. Since then she has spent her life in and out of hospitals and institutions, as fragile mentally as she is physically. She has attempted suicide numerous times, twice citing her unrequited love for Miles as the reason.
Miles and Cindy were born on the same day, in the same hospital, and all his life, Miles's mother seemed to feel there was a connection between them and always instructed Miles to be kind to her. After Cindy's accident, Grace was especially insistent on this, telling Miles "they had a special duty" to help Cindy.
Cindy tells Miles that she still loves him, and his impending divorce gives her hope. Disentangling himself from her desperate embrace, Miles goes outside to meet with Mrs. Whiting.
In the gazebo by the Knox River, Mrs. Whiting tells Miles that the real reason he married Janine was his fear that if he did not, he would end up, at his mother's insistence, marrying pathetic Cindy Whiting. Miles is chilled by Mrs. Whiting's heartless attitude towards her daughter. Before he leaves the Whiting house, Miles asks Cindy to go with him to the homecoming game at Empire High. Afterwards, though, he is filled with dread at the prospect.
Meanwhile at Tick's school, principal Otto Meyer, Miles Roby's old friend, brings the outcast John Voss to the cafeteria where Tick is eating alone. Zack Minty and his friends are tormenting the boy so mercilessly at lunchtime that Meyer has decided he is better off here, eating later with Tick. He asks her to be a friend to the boy. Tick manages to draw John into conversation and learns that he lives with his grandmother because he was abandoned, first by his father, and then by his mother after she remarried. Their conversation is cut short, however, when Zack Minty enters and pleads his case to Tick, asking why she will not give him a second chance. He invites her to come with his friends to see him play in the homecoming game. Tick agrees to come if Zack will leave John alone.
At St. Cat's, Miles lets Max help him paint. In the time they have been working there, Max and old Father Tom have struck up an unlikely friendship. After working at the church one day, Miles and Max return to the Empire Grill, which is packed with customers for Mexican Night. Silent John Voss works there as a bus boy. Zack Minty and his crowd are at the Grill, and Zack asks Miles if Tick might get off work in time to go to a movie. Miles dislikes Zack.
After the night's excellent business, Miles, David, and Charlene—Miles's longtime crush and the Empire Grill's best waitress—go out to celebrate. When the subject of Mrs. Whiting comes up, however, David urges Miles to stop being so passive with her.
Part Two concludes with a flashback to Miles's teenage years, when he first learned to drive. Max Roby, after losing his license, sells the family car. Without a vehicle to practice on, Miles does poorly in his driver's education class. One day his mother informs him that Mrs. Whiting has volunteered to be his instructor.
On his first lesson in the high school parking lot, Mrs. Whiting instructs Miles to "floor it." When they are nearly out of the parking lot, Mrs. Whiting tells him to stop; he slams on the brake. Mrs. Whiting explains that now that he knows the extremes of what the vehicle can do, he should not be afraid. "Power and control," she tells him.
Part Three: Chapters 15-22
At the homecoming football game, Miles helps Cindy Whiting as she makes her halting climb up the bleachers. Just moments after they are seated, Cindy loses her cane down through the bleachers. When Miles returns from getting it, he discovers that Cindy has been joined by Jimmy Minty, who is proudly pointing out his son Zack on the football field. While they watch, Zack makes a vicious late hit on the other team's quarterback, which has Jimmy on his feet cheering, even though the quarterback is clearly injured. Fed up with Jimmy, Miles makes a sarcastic remark, ridiculing Jimmy's grammar. Jimmy leaves with a warning to Miles: "You don't want Jimmy Minty for an enemy."
Janine is at the game but spends most of it in shock. She has just learned that Walt is not fifty, as he has claimed, but sixty years old.
Miles takes Cindy home, first stopping at the cemetery, at Cindy's request, to visit the graves of Miles's mother and C. B. Whiting, Cindy's father. The next morning at the Grill, Miles gazes at a newspaper photo of the office staff of the Empire Shirt Factory, circa 1966. His mother is in the photo, and so is C. B. Whiting. When Miles looks more closely at the photo, he realizes that C. B. Whiting is none other than Charlie Mayne, the man they met on Martha's Vineyard.
Next, a flashback tells of Miles and Grace's return to Empire Falls after the Vineyard vacation. Rumors fly that the shirt factory and mills are closing. One day Honus Whiting calls a meeting of mill workers and announces that the mills are not closing; in fact, a new mill is being opened in Mexico. He explains that C. B. Whiting will go to Mexico to run this mill and that Honus himself will take over the management of the Empire Falls locations. When Miles comes home from baseball practice on the evening of this day, he finds his mother in the bedroom, sobbing.
Not long after, Grace takes Miles to church for confession. Miles waits for over half an hour while Grace confesses her sins to Father Tom. The next day Grace tells Miles that she has to go out for a while. Miles follows her. When she begins crossing the iron bridge over the river, Miles is sure she is going to jump. She continues across, however, and heads toward a gazebo, where a woman is waiting.
Back in present-day Empire Falls, Father Mark wakes up one morning to discover that Father Tom is missing. A search of Father Tom's room turns up a wastebasket full of now-empty offering envelopes from St. Cat's parishioners, and a brochure entitled, "Your New Life Awaits You in the Florida Keys." They discover the parish car is no longer in the garage.
Miles, fresh from his discovery that Charlie Mayne was actually C. B. Whiting, spends the afternoon at the church scraping old paint off its exterior, working hard while reviewing his entire life through the lens of this revelation. After working at the church—and learning about Max and Father Tom's escape—he goes to Bea's bar to propose that they go into business together.
Part Three ends with another flashback, this time to the year that the mill and shirt factory finally close, leaving Grace without a job. A lawyer calls Grace on behalf of a woman who has a broken hip and requires an assistant. The woman turns out to be Francine Whiting, who hires Grace. Grace also helps care for Cindy, whose refusal to work at physical therapy has rendered her most recent operation ineffectual. Grace asks Mrs. Whiting if they will ever speak of C. B. Whiting. Mrs. Whiting says no and makes Grace promise that if he ever contacts her, Grace will inform her immediately. Grace agrees.
Part Four: Chapters 23-32
Janine, despite her many misgivings, marries the Silver Fox, and Miles attends the wedding. After their discount honeymoon at a bed and breakfast, Walt returns to the Empire Grill as usual.
Miles and David spend most of their spare time at Bea's bar, trying to fix the place up enough to start their new business venture. David thinks Miles should tell Mrs. Whiting of their plans, but Miles is reluctant; he is sure Mrs. Whiting will find a way to ruin everything.
In a flashback to Miles's senior year of college, Mrs. Whiting summons Miles home to be with his dying mother. She tells him that if he comes home and helps run the Empire Grill for "a year or so," then she will take care of Grace's medical bills. Miles knows his mother will be furious at this arrangement. Her one dream for Miles is for him to get out of Empire Falls, away from Francine Whiting.
Max calls from Florida and tells Miles that he and Father Tom made it to the Keys as part of the crew of a schooner. Miles asks his father why Max never told him about his mother and C. B. Whiting. Max replies, "How come you never told me, son?"
At the high school, Zack Minty continues to persecute John Voss. One night, Zack uses his father's ring of master keys to let himself into John Voss's house, hoping to discover more about the boy, so he can torture him to even greater effect. Zack's friend Justin stays outside while Zack sneaks into the dark house. When Zack returns, all he has to say is, "This is SO F—— GREAT!"
At school, Tick notices that Zack's torment of John Voss has reached new heights. Zack lets himself into the cafeteria during sixth hour, when Tick and John are eating, to continue ridiculing him. Inexplicably, he inserts John's grandmother into conversation.
Principal Meyer receives anonymous notes asking the question, "Where is John Voss's grandmother?" When he goes to the cafeteria to ask John Voss about the notes, he discovers Zack Minty there. Meyer brings Zack to his office and asks him why he insists on persecuting John Voss. Then he asks Zack if he wrote the notes. Zack denies it, but the trace of a smile on his face as he does so convinces Meyer that Zack is the culprit.
Meyer drives to the Voss house to talk to John's grandmother. When he arrives the house is dark, and no one answers. Suddenly, he has a strong feeling that John's grandmother is not at home and has not been for a long time. He breaks into the house and discovers he is correct. The house has no power or water. Meyer calls the police, who come to the house and start searching for her body, which they find in a nearby landfill. The police suspect that John's grandmother died of natural causes and that to avoid being sent to a foster home, John disposed of her body himself. Then a new search begins, this time for John Voss.
Meanwhile, a surprise health inspection at Bea's place results in the bar being shut down. Miles knows that Mrs. Whiting is behind it. As he leaves the restaurant to go confront her, Walt challenges him to an arm-wrestling match. For the first time, Miles accepts, and he slams Walt's arm on the bar so violently that he breaks his arm. With Walt in a heap on the floor, Miles leaves to find Mrs. Whiting.
Mrs. Whiting is at the old Empire Shirt Factory, showing the building to some out-of-town investors. Miles is confronted by Jimmy Minty, whom Mrs. Whiting has hired to stand guard. When Jimmy Minty refuses to let Miles enter, Miles punches him in the nose. A long fight ensues, until Mrs. Whiting finally emerges. Miles tells her he is giving her his notice; she will have to find a new manager for the Empire Grill. He also confronts her with the real reason she has kept him working for her all these years: "He preferred my mother, didn't he, Mrs. Whiting?" Mrs. Whiting gets in her Lincoln and drives away, and Miles and Jimmy Minty both end up in the hospital from their fight.
The day after this confrontation, Tick is painting in art class, when John Voss enters carrying a brown grocery bag. When Justin asks him what is in the bag, he reaches inside, pulls out a revolver and begins shooting. He shoots Justin, the teacher Mrs. Roderigue, and Candace, and then turns on Tick, who faints.
At the hospital, the police chief arrives and tells Miles to come with him. When they get to the high school, they find a gruesome scene. Justin Dibble and the teacher are both dead, and so is Otto Meyer. Miles learns that just as John was about to shoot Tick, Meyer stepped between them and saved her life. Miles finds Tick crouched behind the classroom door, clutching the Exacto knife Candace had stolen earlier. Miles carries her to his car and drives straight to Martha's Vineyard, intent only on getting Tick far away from Empire Falls.
On Martha's Vineyard, Miles and Tick stay in the friend's vacation house. Tick's progress is slow but steady: Miles enrolls her in the high school on the island. David calls and asks when they're coming home. According to David, new investment in Empire Falls has things looking up—developers are turning the old mill buildings into a brew pub and a mall, and Mrs. Whiting has put her house up for sale. Police discovered stolen merchandise in Jimmy Minty's house, and he has been forced to resign from the police force. Still, Miles is reluctant to return.
Out of nowhere, Max shows up on the island for a visit. Talking with Miles, Max admits that he was a disappointment for Grace as a husband and that if she had met C. B. Whiting first, she would have been happier. One day, Miles drives to the cottage where he and his mother stayed on their fateful visit to the island. He falls asleep there and dreams that he is a boy, confronting Charlie Mayne. Miles tells Charlie that Grace waited for him, and he never came. He says that Charlie killed Grace. Charlie tells Miles that he was the reason they could not run away together, and so it was really Miles who killed her. Miles awakens with the realization that it is time to return to Empire Falls.
When Miles returns to the cottage, Max tells him David just called and said that Francine Whiting has died, drowned in the Knox River during a flood. The next day, Miles, Tick, and Max head back to Empire Falls.
The epilogue of Empire Falls gives the details of C. B. Whiting's untimely end. He has been living in Mexico for many years now, since being banished from Maine as punishment for his affair with Grace. However, his father Honus Whiting has recently died, and for the second time in his life, Charles Beaumont Whiting has been summoned home from Mexico to take over the family business, this time by his wife, Francine, whom he despises. So on his way back to Empire Falls, he purchases a revolver, hoping to succeed where the other Whiting males have failed and kill his wife.
When he arrives at the house, however, and heads to the gazebo, where he imagines Francine will be, he sees that she is not alone. His daughter, Cindy, is watching through the patio door, and the true love of his life, Grace Roby, is beside his wife. When he sees his daughter, clutching the door handle for support, he recalls the day when, in a rage, he packed a suitcase, threw it in his car, and tore out of the garage without looking. It was C. B. Whiting who ran over Cindy, and Francine who shrewdly invented an anonymous hit-and-run driver in her account to the police. C. B. never confessed his guilt until he fell in love with Grace Roby; Grace heard his confession and forgave him.
When Cindy sees her father, she calls, "Daddy!" and it is then that C. B. Whiting decides to use the revolver to end his own life, instead of Francine's.
C. B. Whiting does, indirectly, succeed in killing his wife. Because he altered the flow of the Knox River, he made it more prone to flooding, and it is one of these floods that sweeps Francine Whiting out of her gazebo and down the river.
Candace Burke is Tick's new friend in art class. Candace is overweight, not particularly popular, and an unmotivated student, which is not surprising given that her mother's favorite endearment for her is "moron." Candace prefers discussing her love life to actually participating in class, and she begins most of her sentences with, "Oh-my-God-oh-my-God!"
Walt Comeau is a cocky, cheerful blowhard who challenges Miles to an arm-wrestling match every day. Walt wastes little time looking beyond the surface of any situation or person. To the Silver Fox, image is everything. Though he showers Janine with compliments on her appearance, these are the only compliments she gets.
To his credit, Walt has a positive outlook on life and seems genuinely fond of the regulars at the Grill. He remains optimistic about the town's prospects, just as he continues to believe he will someday beat Horace Weymouth at cards.
Charlene Gardiner is the Empire Grill's best waitress, a well-endowed, outspoken woman who feels it well within her rights to offer customers advice and enter into their conversations. Miles has pined for Charlene since high school, when he was fifteen and she was eighteen. She prefers bad men with fast cars, even after four failed marriages.
Bea Majeski is Janine Roby's mother and the proprieter of Callahan's, a local bar that is one of the few businesses in Empire Falls not owned by Francine Whiting. Bea is a no-nonsense, robust woman who speaks her mind and has little patience for her daughter's midlife crisis. She loves Miles and is mystified by Janine's attraction to Walt Comeau, whom she refers to as "that little banty rooster."
Father Mark is the younger of the two priests at St. Catherine's, Miles's church. Father Mark is gay, though he remains celibate, and also a pacifist who has taken part in anti-war demonstrations. Between his unpopular political stance and rumors about his sexual orientation, the diocese is not happy with Father Mark, which is why he was sent to Empire Falls in the first place. He and Miles have become good friends, perhaps because they are both sensitive, educated men—a bit of an anomaly in Empire Falls.
Otto Meyer Jr.
Otto Meyer is the principal of Empire High School, a job that has given him both his livelihood and bleeding ulcers. Otto, known to his high school classmates as "Oscar Meyer, the weiner," is an old friend of Miles; Otto came to his rescue in driver's education, preventing Miles from wrecking the driver's education car. Near the end of the novel, Otto saves Tick's life as well and sacrifices his own.
Miles's next-door neighbor from childhood, Jimmy Minty, is now an Empire Falls policeman. Jimmy's father, William Minty, was a petty thief, wife-beater, and poacher, who made a little extra money now and then as an "enforcer" for the Whitings when mill workers threatened to unionize. Miles realizes that, in his own perverse way, Jimmy really does want to be his friend, but Jimmy is enough like his father that Miles has no desire to take him up on the offer.
Zack Minty, who until recently was Tick's boyfriend, is cruel, coarse, and volatile. Zack keeps his friends (and girlfriends) not through common interests and shared opinions, but through intimidation and threats. His good looks and athletic ability have allowed him to get away with this behavior so far, but with his misconduct on the football field and his failing grades, it seems that Zack is riding for a fall.
Miles's college roommate Peter and his wife Dawn are now writers of TV sitcoms in Los Angeles. Every summer they invite Miles to join them at their summer home on Martha's Vineyard.
See Tick Roby
David's brother Miles is Grace Roby's problem child. Practically abandoned by Grace as a boy when she became obsessed with the Whiting household, David responded by becoming a juvenile delinquent, a lifestyle he continued right into his thirties, until he ruined his arm in a drunk-driving accident. Now David appears to have cleaned up his act, but Miles still finds it difficult to believe he will not return to his delinquent ways.
Grace's last request from David was, "Look after your brother." David is frustrated with Miles's passive behavior and wants him to take control of his life.
Miles's mother, Grace Roby, is a key figure not only in Miles's upbringing but in his present daily life; the lessons and love she gave him strengthen and hinder him at the same time. Grace, after many years as the unfortunate spouse of Max Roby, died at a relatively young age of cancer in Miles's last year of college.
Grace becomes a virtual deity in Miles's eyes, a symbol of all that is holy and good. When Miles imagines an all-loving God, "It pleased him to imagine God as someone like his mother, someone beleaguered by too many responsibilities, too dog-tired to monitor an energetic boy every minute of the day, but who, out of love and fear for his safety, checked in on him whenever she could." During their trip to the Vineyard, Grace's appearance is nothing short of angelic, in the white dress she bought to wear for Charlie Mayne. In the epilogue, C. B. Whiting's thoughts about Grace are steeped with religious imagery; as he considers telling her the truth about Cindy's accident, he thinks, "If he were able to tell her, and if she were still able to love him, then wouldn't this be his salvation?" Then, when he does tell her: "As he'd always imagined, she heard his confession … and redeemed him." When he sees her years later, he realizes that "The penance he'd once assumed for himself, he'd allowed her to perform in his stead." Like Jesus himself, Grace has taken on the weight of C. B. Whiting's sins.
Of course, Grace is merely human, as is demonstrated by her emotional abandonment of David as a child. In addition, on her deathbed, she is furious with Miles over leaving school and "clung to her anger as if that alone might keep her alive." The memory of her rage haunts Miles even now.
Janine, Miles's soon-to-be-ex wife, is on a mission to make up for all the sex and all the orgasms that Miles "cheated" her out of in twenty years of marriage. After Walt gives her her first orgasm ever at the age of forty, Janine decides that Walt Comeau is what she wants, not Miles. Even as second thoughts turn to third, fourth, and tenth thoughts, Janine is too proud and stubborn to admit that marrying Walt is a mistake. Janine is defensive and quick to anger, the temperamental opposite of Miles.
Miles's father, Max, who is "sempty" years old, provides comic relief throughout the novel. Max's philosophy of life is embodied in the phrase, "So what?" Max looks out for Max and spends much of his time finding ways to get money while simultaneously avoiding work. When Miles was a boy, Max would disappear for months at a time, sometimes to work as a house painter, sometimes to simply do whatever he wanted. Miles's mother was left to support her family by working at the shirt factory.
There are signs, however, that contrary to Miles's opinion, Max is not "truly without conscience." For instance, one night at Bea's bar, Horace mentions C. B. Whiting's suicide, and Max blurts out, "Twenty-three years ago March," to the amazement of both Horace and Bea. Clearly Grace's affair with Whiting meant more to Max than he revealed. Later he admits to Miles, "It's a terrible thing to be a disappointment to a good woman."
The protagonist of Empire Falls and the manager of the Empire Grill, Miles Roby is, as one of the characters in the novel describes him, "the nicest, saddest man in all of Empire Falls." He is also the most passive. Miles has learned to tolerate so much in the interest of not making trouble that he has lost touch with his own emotions and desires. He tells Father Mark that he was surprised to learn that his friends Peter and Dawn saw him as unhappy in his marriage. "I mean, if I was so unhappy, wouldn't I know?"
Miles steers a careful course in his life, always taking the middle road. While most people could relate to his desire to avoid the lows in life, Miles avoids the highs as well, as signified by his paralyzing fear of heights. This is not surprising, given that the most vivid example of great happiness in Miles's life was the joy his mother Grace experienced on Martha's Vineyard with Charlie Mayne. To Father Mark, Miles confesses "his lifelong worry that the intensity of his mother's brief joy had somehow been the root cause of the illness that killed her a decade later." No wonder Miles steers clear of ecstasy.
Another of Miles's key character traits is his inability to keep a secret; his facial expressions always give him away. Miles, through his own basic decency and Catholic upbringing, is not just morally incapable of lying, but physically as well. So thoroughly ingrained in Miles are the lessons of his Catholic education, that when he has a fleeting mental image of killing Father Tom (after Tom calls his mother a "whore"), he apologizes, reflecting the Catholic precept that evil thoughts, not just evil acts, are sinful.
The fact that in a single day, Miles has murderous thoughts about both Walt Comeau and Father Tom indicates that perhaps his capacity for tolerance is reaching its limit.
Miles and Janine's daughter, Christina, called Tick, is Grace Roby all over again. She is like Grace in her sensitive, compassionate nature and her willingness to forgive: "[Tick is] the kind of person who forgives easily, who in fact cannot bear to think of a person wanting to be forgiven and having that forgiveness withheld."
What Tick lacks is Grace's strength. While she makes brave choices—such as breaking up with Zack Minty—she is then constantly fearful of the consequences. She is especially sensitive to the possibility of violence, as in the instance when she watches a movie about the D-Day invasion and her left arm goes numb. Her burdens, such as her fears, her parents' impending divorce, her mother's upcoming marriage to a man she despises, and her friendless status at school, are suggested by the enormous backpack she lugs to school, which is so heavy that Tick's spine shows early signs of scoliosis.
Doris Roderigue is Tick's art teacher at Empire High. Mrs. Roderigue is an uptight, closedminded woman who believes that clean-up is "the most important part of the whole artistic process." She dislikes Tick, mainly because Miles once embarrassed her in a public meeting.
While Father Mark is compassionate and understanding, Father Tom has always been stern and reprimanding, seeking to strike the fear of God into his parishioners. Now in his old age, he is senile and lashes out at others, using his favorite word, "peckerhead." He can no longer be trusted to keep confessions confidential; it was from Father Tom that Miles learned Janine was sleeping with Walt Comeau. Most importantly, it was Father Tom who, over thirty years before, heard Grace Roby's confession after her trip to Martha's Vineyard and instructed her to beg Francine Whiting's forgiveness.
John Voss is the unnaturally quiet classmate of Tick. He comes to school with mismatched thrift shop clothing and unwashed, matted hair and rarely makes eye contact. John has been abandoned by both his parents and now lives with his grandmother. Late in the novel the reader learns that John's parents were drug dealers who, when John was a small boy, would stuff him into a laundry bag and hang him on the back of a closet door, so that he wouldn't interfere with business.
Tick does her best to be kind to John, even though she is afraid of him. As Zack Minty torments him, she notices that John "almost seems to feed on the abuse." To John, abuse is familiar and, perhaps, in a twisted way, comforting.
Horace Weymouth is a reporter for the Empire Gazette, a good-natured cynic who comes into the Empire Grill every day to have a hamburger and beat Walt Comeau at cards. Horace has a large, purple fibroid cyst in the middle of his forehead; when Max suggests he should get it removed, Horace jokes, "I think it might be the source of my intelligence." Though he has decided, from his experience as a reporter, that most people are "selfish, greedy, unprincipled, venal, utterly irredeemable s—eaters," he treats everyone with kindness and respect, indicating that he still harbors a some optimism where human nature is concerned.
Charles Beaumont Whiting
C. B. Whiting is a dreamer born into a family of pragmatic achievers. When he is summoned home to Empire Falls from Mexico to take his place in the family business, he believes he is betraying his best self, the self that wants to paint and write poetry. However, C. B. Whiting is a weak man, not in the habit of standing up to others, and so he returns. Unfortunately for him, "he'd never mastered the fine art of self-deception as most weak men do." His self-awareness contributes to his low opinion of himself.
Just like all the other Whiting males, C. B. Whiting chooses a wife who will make him miserable. His inability to stand up to her and to his father costs him the greatest love of his life, Grace Roby.
Cindy Whiting, the daughter of Francine and C. B. Whiting, takes after her father: she is a dreamer who lacks the fortitude to make her dreams come true. She continues to believe that miracles are possible, that after each new operation she will be born anew. When these miracles do not occur, she is unwilling to work at physical therapy, convinced that the operation is a failure.
Cindy also clings to the notion that Miles may someday fall in love with her, though at some level, she is aware that this will never happen. For example, when Miles reassures her that he is pleased to see her, "She gave him a smile in which hope and knowledge were going at it, bare-knuckled, equally and eternally matched."
Perhaps the most mysterious character of the novel, Francine Whiting, who owns most of Empire Falls, is an incredibly shrewd woman. Her cold analyses of others' motives and desires, while tactless, are usually absolutely correct. It is as though, unencumbered by any emotions of her own, she is free to see others in a clear and objective light, though without a trace of empathy.
Francine Whiting fears losing control of her emotions. At no point in the novel does Mrs. Whiting have an outburst—she is never enraged, surprised, or even startled. Rather than laughing, she merely pronounces things "‘hilarious,’ despite a demeanor that suggested she didn't find them even remotely funny." Even her revenge is taken without passion, a slow, time-release sort of vengeance that is meted out over the course of thirty-odd years.
Near the end of the novel, Miles asks Mrs. Whiting, "When did you ever feel passion?" She replies, "Well, it's true I'm seldom swept away like those with more romantic temperaments." Ironic, then, that when she finally meets her demise, this is exactly what happens: she is swept away—not by romantic feelings but by the uncontrolled waters of the Knox River.
Human Nature versus Free Will
Early on, Russo poses the question of whether people's personalities and tendencies are fixed at birth, as their inherent nature, or whether they can change at will. In the prologue, C. B. Whiting feels that by leaving his painting and poetry behind in Mexico, he is "violating his own best nature." His father Honus is more of the opinion that, even if a man had a "best nature," "it was probably your duty either to deny it or whip it into shape, show it who was boss." Francine Whiting believes differently. She tells Miles in her imperious way: "Lives are rivers. We imagine we can direct their paths, though in the end there's but one destination, and we end up being true to ourselves only because we have no choice." This remark is ironic coming from Mrs. Whiting, since she has spent years directing the paths of Miles and his mother, using their own natures against them to keep them where she wants them. Apparently Mrs. Whiting believes she herself is exempt from this inability to direct one's life because her mantra is "Power and control."
Later, Miles considers the question of nature versus free will in reference to his father: "It probably was admirable that his father never battled his own nature, never expected more of himself than experience had taught him was wise, thereby avoiding disappointment and self-recrimination." Disappointment and self-recrimination, of course, are all too familiar to Miles.
Empire Falls provides examples that show both that people are slaves to their inborn nature and that real change is possible. It does not seem likely, for instance, that Janine Roby is going to change. Though she claims, "People can change, and I'm changing," her mother observes, "You aren't changing, Janine … You're just losing weight." Janine just makes the same mistakes in new ways. She swings from one extreme to another: from Miles, a man with little passion, she jumps to Walt, a man whose passion is the only thing she enjoys.
David Roby, by contrast, seems to have achieved real change, though Miles continues to doubt him after three years of sobriety. He eventually realizes that he's been unfair to David: "He'd … meant to learn to trust him, but instead merely fell into the habit of waiting for him to f—— up again, even though he hadn't for a long time."
Miles finally changes his passive attitude, but as with David, it takes a traumatic event—the discovery of Charlie Mayne's true identity—to divert his well-worn path. The conclusion here is that without being shocked into self-awareness by a life-altering event, most people continue with their usual patterns.
Repression and its consequences is illustrated in several of the novel's key characters. For instance, Mrs. Whiting's description of Miles Roby as "a case study in repression" is fairly accurate. Miles allows the man who had an affair with his wife to eat regularly at his diner, live in his former house (while he resides in a tiny apartment over the Empire Grill), and even belittle his business tactics, all without a hostile word in return. In fact, he seems to go out of his way to give Walt the benefit of the doubt. Miles tells David, "I think he just comes in to let me know there's no hard feelings."
Similarly, Miles allows Mrs. Whiting to condescend to him on a regular basis. He does not object as she tactlessly espouses her theories on his personal motives and his marriage and speculates about his future actions as though his life were some sort of soap opera she enjoys switching on occasionally.
Miles is not really as saintly as he seems; he is simply repressing his anger. Russo demonstrates the consequence of all this repression through Miles's uncharacteristically violent outburst towards the end of the novel. When Mrs. Whiting attempts to block his new business venture with Bea, Miles snaps. First, he arm-wrestles Walt and actually breaks his arm. Miles is not described as a particularly athletic man; it is the sheer force of his pent-up rage that snaps Walt's arm. Then when Jimmy Minty tries to prevent him from seeing Mrs. Whiting, Miles attacks him.
There are parallels between Miles's repression and the more severe case of John Voss. John's repression is so complete that he hardly ever speaks at all, even though he has a lifetime of abuse to keep down. When the lid finally blows on John's anger—just one day after Miles's explosion—he doesn't just break someone's arm, he kills three people. Of course, the motives for repression in these two cases are different. Miles's repression is born, at least in part, from his Catholic upbringing and his need to keep his job at the Empire Grill. John's motives are probably more complex; most likely he had found that, in an abusive household, silence is the safest option. Both Miles and John, however, fear what will happen if they fully express their extreme emotions.
It is possible that Francine Whiting harbors this same fear. Surely a woman so cool, measured, and calculating must be repressing more volatile emotions—rage, grief, remorse. If Mrs. Whiting does have a more emotional side to her, then, like Honus Whiting, she has "beaten it into perfect submission." The consequence of her repression is an inability to experience any emotion at all.
In the end, Russo shows that there is no such thing as successful repression; the pent-up emotions will either explode to the surface or corrode a person from within.
In the character of Miles Roby, Russo illustrates the crippling effect of excessive guilt. Miles's whole life has been directed by a combination of love, guilt, and fear. Because he loves his mother, he feels guilty when he does not come home to visit her while he is in college, even though his continued absence is exactly what his mother wants—she wants him as far away from Francine Whiting as he can get. Mrs. Whiting uses this guilt to manipulate Miles into coming home from school, even though he knows this will infuriate his mother. Then, of course, he feels guilty for disappointing her and not finishing his studies, guilty for increasing her suffering as her cancer consumes her.
In almost any situation, Miles is quick to blame himself. A large part of this guilt stems from Miles's Catholic upbringing. One cannot help but feel for young Miles, at age nine, as he prepares for confession after the fateful vacation on Martha's Vineyard:
Topics For Further Study
- In his audio commentary on the DVD of the Empire Falls miniseries, Russo reveals that Timmy the Cat is actually Grace Roby reincarnated. How does this change your view of Timmy's actions? Reread the scenes of the novel featuring Timmy, and write a paragraph reinterpreting Timmy's actions in each scene.
- Like Empire Falls, many communities falter when major industries become obsolete or move to other regions. Think of at least three examples of cities that have declined due to such circumstances. Choose one of the three and find the following: population before and after, average income before and after, and median housing prices before and after. Make a chart showing the results.
- Though class distinctions are not as rigid in the United States as in some other countries, they still exist. List examples of class distinction from Empire Falls, both in the past (as in the flashbacks to Grace's life), in Miles's life, and in Tick's life at high school. Include on your list what the basis is for these distinctions: Is it money? Power? Intellect?
- Based on the descriptions in the novel, draw a map of Empire Falls, including the Knox River, the Whiting hacienda, the shirt factory, the Empire Grill, and the Whiting mansion. Include whatever other landmarks you remember from the book.
- Though the book has an omniscient narrator, the narrator takes the viewpoint of different characters in different chapters (for example, the high school chapters are written with Tick's point of view). However, Russo does not include segments written from Francine Whiting's or John Voss's point of view. Why do you think he chose not to do so? Choose a scene from the novel that involves Mrs. Whiting or John Voss and write it from this character's point of view.
Since returning from Martha's Vineyard he'd grown certain that he, not just his mother, had somehow sinned there, though he wasn't sure what sort of sin it was or how to explain it to the man on the other side of the lattice. He knew he'd betrayed his father by promising to keep his mother's secret, just as he was certain that if he broke that promise he would be betraying her…. He had come to confession armed with a list of sins he hadn't committed, sins he hoped were equal in magnitude to whatever he was concealing.
Here, Miles is cornered by guilt: no matter what he chooses to do, he has betrayed someone. Grace, out of her guilt, follows Father Tom's directive to humiliate herself by begging Francine Whiting's forgiveness.
Max Roby and Mrs. Whiting are on the other end of the spectrum, feeling little or no guilt concerning their actions. Mrs. Whiting is cold and inhumane, and Max is compared to an ape more than once. The conclusion here seems to be that while some guilt is necessary and has a humanizing effect, too much is paralyzing, leaving a person unable to act.
Confusion of the Past and Future
In the first chapter of Empire Falls, Miles observes that when people look out the window of the Empire Grill, they look toward the abandoned textile mill and shirt factory, not in the other direction. "If the past were razed, the slate wiped clean, maybe fewer people would confuse it with the future." The citizens of Empire Falls continue to imagine that the mill and factory will be bought and revived, and Empire Falls will return to its past prosperity.
This confusion is further illustrated by the scale model of Empire Falls at the Planning and Development Commission office. One would expect that the Planning and Development Commission would be concerned mainly with the future, but the model depicts Empire Falls, circa 1959. As Mrs. Whiting points out, "Most Americans want it to be 1959, with the addition of cappuccino and cable TV." The only structure on the model that looks the same way it does in reality is the Whiting mansion, an indication, perhaps, that the past, present, and future of Empire Falls all belong to the Whitings.
In more than one instance, Russo likens sexual desire to a fever or illness. For instance, Father Mark, the younger priest at St. Catherine's, is battling his homosexuality in his struggle to remain celibate. He meets a young gay artist at a protest rally, who invites him to visit his studio and also to counsel him on a "spiritual matter." When he manages to resist temptation, Russo writes, "Father Mark's own crisis had passed, leaving him weak and relieved, as if a fever had broken."
In another scene, Miles's mother-in-law Bea muses that "Saying good-bye to sex was like waking up from a delirium, a tropical fever, into a world of cool, Canadian breezes." Later, Mrs. Walsh, the housekeeper at St. Cat's, is of a similar opinion. She no longer cares about sex and considers the fact that she ever did care "a kind of temporary lunacy," which, fortunately, "had been short-lived, not terribly virulent, and ultimately cured by marriage, as God intended."
The younger Janine Roby, of course, disagrees with Bea and Mrs. Walsh. Janine has just discovered the joys of sex after twenty years of passionless marriage to Miles. She credits Walt with awakening her sexuality and giving her her first orgasm. Her objective in marrying Walt is to "make up for all the sex she'd been cheated out of." This explains why she is so horrified to find that Walt is sixty, not fifty, as he claimed. "What if in a few short years all her well-hung man did was hang?" By the end of the novel, however, Janine's fever for Walt has cooled considerably. If marrying Walt could be considered insane— certainly Bea would characterize it as such—then Janine, too, could be said to be suffering from a temporary lunacy.
The only character in the novel that seems to derive any real joy from their sexuality is Grace Roby. During her brief affair with C. B. Whiting on Martha's Vineyard, Grace is happier and more radiant than Miles has ever seen her. Perhaps this is because Grace and C. B. Whiting are truly in love; most of the other couples in the novel are mismatched and miserable. Ironically, during her affair on the island, Grace also suffers from the consequences of sex with Max Roby—violent morning sickness.
In short, Russo's novel suggests that sexual desire in the wrong relationship (as in the case of Max and Grace) or experienced by a self-absorbed person who is not mature enough to truly love anyone (as in the case of Janine) is merely a physical condition, a hormonal imbalance.
Empire Falls is a town mired in its own past. The once prosperous shirt factory and textile mill stand empty, a constant reminder of what the town has lost. Unable to imagine a new future, the town's citizens dream of returning to the past. At least once a year someone spots an expensive car parked at the old mill, and the same optimistic rumor begins circulating: someone is going to buy it and put the whole town back to work again.
This bleak setting is a key element of the novel because the local poverty narrows Miles's options. Here in Empire Falls he is trapped because by this town's standards managing the Empire Grill is a good job. With Tick just a few short years away from college, Miles feels he cannot afford to upset the status quo and defy Mrs. Whiting. He clings to her promise that she will leave him the Grill when she dies, though he has no proof of this, other than her word.
In a larger city, it would not be possible for one woman to have such a stranglehold on the economy. In Boston or New York, Mrs. Whiting would be just one more wealthy woman. In Empire Falls, she holds the purse strings for an entire community.
Finally, few of the citizens in this blue-collar town have an education beyond high school or an appreciation for the things that Miles enjoyed in his college years. As he discovered in his freshman year, "This was where he belonged, among people who loved books and art and music, enthusiasms he was hard-pressed to explain to the guys lazing around the counter at the Empire Grill." Having few neighbors who share these interests is a constant reminder to Miles that where he is now is not where he had once hoped to be.
Point of View
Empire Falls is told from an omniscient point of view. The reader is privy to the thoughts, emotions, and motives of all the major characters, with the exceptions of Francine Whiting and John Voss. Because of this arrangement, readers learn much more about the characters, even relatively minor ones, than in a story written from, for instance, a limited first-person viewpoint. For example, Otto Meyer Jr. could not be called a major character in the novel, but because of the omniscient narrator, readers learn that he feels he has failed as a parent, that he is taking mass quantities of antacids to calm his ulcers, that he does not favor capital punishment, that angry parents call and yell obscenities at him when he declares a snow day, and that his son Adam refers to him as "clueless." Knowing this about Meyer allows readers to appreciate even more his choice to protect a student at the risk of his own life. The point of view helps convey the breadth and depth of characters, giving the novel a full, rich quality and breathing life into the fictional community of Empire Falls.
The mystery of the connection between Grace Roby, Francine Whiting, and C. B. Whiting is gradually revealed in chapter-long flashbacks to Miles's childhood and adolescence, printed in italics. By alternating these past scenes with present-day situations, Russo shows how Miles's relationship with his mother still affects him on an everyday basis. Also, through information revealed in the earlier flashbacks, Russo gives readers a chance to discover the true identity of Charlie Mayne before Miles does. Once Miles does make the discovery, the flashbacks illustrate how differently the past was experienced by Miles without that information and how he must now reinterpret his own childhood.
The combination of the omniscient narrator and the flashback also allows the reader to experience the story of C. B. Whiting, including the truth about Cindy Whiting's accident, Whiting's great love for Grace Roby, and the thought processes that led to his eventual suicide. C. B. Whiting's story is told in the prologue and epilogue, framing the rest of the novel. Without learning his story and his emotions, readers might view C. B. Whiting as a villain, a cad who promised Grace Roby happiness and then abandoned her without a second thought. By revealing his internal struggles, Russo portrays him as a sensitive, caring, but flawed man who lacks the fortitude to battle his formidable wife.
Russo drops clues that foreshadow future events and revelations. The true identity of Charlie Mayne, for instance, is hinted at early on, when Miles is in Mrs. Whiting's office of the Planning and Development Commission. A portrait of Elijah Whiting overlooks the scale model of Empire Falls, and this portrait and other Whiting portraits "all reminded Miles of someone, though he couldn't imagine who." In a flashback to his driving lessons with Mrs. Whiting, Mrs. Whiting claims that Cindy is "her father's daughter." A few moments later, when Miles sees part of Cindy's face in the rear view mirror, "Miles thought he saw someone else, someone vaguely familiar, someone he couldn't quite place."
The stolen Exacto knife that Tick retrieves and puts in her backpack foreshadows violence to come. Tick believes this violence will come from Zack Minty, who is angry with her for breaking up with him. Another harbinger of violence is the game that Zack calls "Polish Roulette," played by putting an unloaded gun to one's head and pulling the trigger. Zack is unnerved by John Voss's ability to play the game without flinching.
The story of a man whose mother died young of cancer, whose wife divorces him, and whose business barely makes a profit could be rather grim if it were not for the abundant humor in Empire Falls. A good deal of the humor is supplied by Max Roby, whose complete lack of tact makes for some hilarious moments. Upon seeing Jimmy Minty at the donut shop, Max greets him by saying, "Jimmy Minty … My God, what a stupid kid you were growing up." At Bea's bar, when Horace declines Max's offer to go to the Florida Keys, claiming he might get depressed and shoot himself like Hemingway, Max replies, "Try to miss that thing on your forehead … What a hell of a mess that would make."
Despite his troubles, Miles still has a sense of humor. Shortly after Janine and Walt get married, Miles receives an anonymous phone call:
"Did you know your wife's on upper Empire Avenue screaming obscenities and kicking in the side of your Jeep?"
"Here," Miles said, handing the phone to the Silver Fox. "It's for you."
The humor of Empire Falls serves to lighten the grim reality of the town's decline and Miles's disappointments. It also makes Miles, who in his extreme passivity could become frustrating for readers, a more likable and sympathetic character.
The unifying metaphor of Empire Falls is that of the river. It begins in the prologue, when C. B. Whiting attempts to alter the course of the Knox River so that garbage will no longer wash up on his doorstep. Ultimately, he fails; in a present-day scene, garbage is still washing up on the banks of the Knox River, by Mrs. Whiting's gazebo. There is a certain karmic justice to the garbage accumulating on the Whitings' lawn, since their factories polluted the river with dyes and chemicals for many years.
Though C. B. Whiting blasted away the Robideaux blight, he was later unable to blast away the true blight of his life, Francine Robideaux, even though he bought a revolver expressly for that purpose. It finally takes an act of nature to remove Francine, when the Knox River floods and sweeps her from her seat in the gazebo. If the river is life, then it is appropriate that Mrs. Whiting has constructed herself this comfortable perch from which to observe it. Throughout the story she is a keen observer of others, amusing herself by picking apart the motives and missteps of the citizens of Empire Falls.
Another recurrent metaphor is that of heights. As a boy, Miles loved to climb trees, but now "For all his early promise, Miles had scaled no heights." His paralyzing fear of heights is a metaphor for his fear of rising above his ordinary lifestyle and work, of taking a risk in order to gain something better. Miles is not the only character whose life is mired in mediocrity; when Janine is unable to get seats at the top of the stadium for the football game and instead spends it lower down with her mother brooding over her discovery of Walt's real age, Russo writes, "Janine understood about her mother's aching feet and why she hadn't wanted to climb all the way to the top … But damn, she'd hoped to get farther up than this." In these ways, Russo uses literal height or high places as a metaphor for development, for a character's ability to rise professionally or financially or in other ways.
Violence in Schools
In December 1997, a high school freshman in West Paducah, Kentucky, killed three students and injured five others when he fired about a dozen shots at the members of an informal prayer group. In a 2001 interview on www.randomhouse .com, Russo says it was this school shooting that first got him thinking about school violence and its causes. Just a few months later, in March 1998, two boys aged thirteen and eleven killed four students and one teacher and wounded ten others at a middle school in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Then in April 1999, at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed fifteen and wounded twenty-three in the worst school shooting to date in U.S. history. Parents across the country began demanding tighter security measures in schools, especially high schools. Russo's two daughters were in high school during this time.
Often, the students responsible for such shootings showed signs beforehand that something was wrong or even let others know of their intentions. According to a 2002 article in www.harvard magazine.com, "In many of the cases studied, fellow students knew about the shooter's plans and, in some cases, even knew the shooter had a gun with him before the attack began … But knowledge of the impending tragedy never made it to the adults in the community." This disconnect between adults and teenagers is mentioned several times in Empire Falls. For example, Russo writes:
Most teachers, Tick has learned, feel no great compulsion to confront trouble…. The mystery of the Exacto knife stolen after the first art class … would be solved if Mrs. Roderigue ever visited [the] Blue [table], where Candace openly uses it on her "Bobby" carving.
The suggestion here is that the teacher is negligent in the case of the knife. Yet the more serious question of the school shooting is not so easily settled by blaming teachers. The principal goes out of his way to protect John Voss from another student, and yet John's psychological needs are not met and violence erupts.
Decline of the Textile Industry
Though the mill and shirt factory in Empire Falls closed over twenty years before the novel begins, a real crisis in the textile industry was taking place during the years that Russo was writing it. In 1997, the textile industry had a banner year, with near-record profits. However, sharp devaluations in Asian currencies, beginning in the latter half of 1997, caused U.S. prices to fall. Asian textile imports increased 80 percent between 1997 and 2001. Textile profits began dropping in 1998; in 2000, the U.S. textile industry posted a 350 million dollar loss—the first annual loss in its history. In a June 2001 statement to the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Technology, the American Textile Manufacturers Institute asserts, "In May 2001 alone, 9,000 U.S. textile workers lost their jobs. Over the past twelve months, ten percent of the textile workforce— 56,000 workers—lost their jobs." Between 1997 and September 2002, a total of two hundred and forty mills closed.
The panoramic scope of Empire Falls prompted many critics to label it as Russo's most ambitious work to date. Is this ambition fully realized? Some critics answer with a resounding yes; Ron Charles of the Christian Science Monitor goes so far as to say, "The history of American literature may show that Richard Russo wrote the last great novel of the 20th century." Bruce Fretts of Entertainment Weekly says, "With this deeply ambitious book, Richard Russo has found new life as a writer."
Critics specifically praise Russo's compassion and empathy for his characters, even the less lovable ones: A. O. Scott of the New York Times cites his "humane sympathy for weakness and self-deception—a sympathy extended even to the manipulative Mrs. Whiting." Maria Russo of Salon notes that Russo writes "without sentimentality or nostalgia, just compassion for his characters' foibles and deep insight into the startling, sometimes disturbing varieties of human nature."
Russo's humor is also singled out for praise by many reviewers. "The deadpan wit of Russo's previous book, "Straight Man," runs all through this more weighty novel, particularly in his devastating (and devastatingly funny) descriptions of small-minded people," writes Charles. Fretts agrees, adding, "His one-liners can make you laugh out loud."
Some reviewers criticized the scope of the book. James Marcus of the Atlantic Monthly remarks that "at just over 500 pages the novel feels overstuffed," and Rita D. Jacobs of World Literature Today writes that the book "goes on for too long." Fretts disagrees; he calls the book "dense in the best sense of the word" and claims "hardly a word is wasted."
Another point disagreed on by reviewers is whether the school violence near the end of the novel is congruous with the rest of the book. Edward Hower, in a review in World and I, finds that this particular plotline "skirts uncomfortably close to melodrama at the story's end, adding a tinge of tragedy that seems incongruous." Jacobs writes, "when the surprises come at the end, they feel abrupt and forced." Scott, however, states, "the last section of the book explodes with surprises that also seem, in retrospect, like inevitabilities."
On the whole, the book was warmly received, as evidenced by the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction awarded to Russo in 2002. As Tom Bissell in Esquire writes: "There are bound to be other, flashier novels published this year, but very few will find such a deep, permanent place in one's heart."
Pryor has a B.A. from University of Michigan and over twenty years experience in professional and creative writing with special interest in fiction. In this essay, she examines how the Knox River in Empire Falls is a metaphor with more than one possible meaning.
"Has it ever occurred to you that life is a river, dear boy?" Francine Whiting asks Miles Roby in Empire Falls. Apparently the idea of the river as metaphor has occurred to Richard Russo, because the Knox River comes to symbolize not just life in this novel, but God, death, and wealth.
Readers are first introduced to the waters of the Knox in the prologue, when C. B. Whiting discovers the river's irritating tendency to deposit "all manner of other people's s—" on his lawn. Whiting comes to the conclusion that God is doing this to punish him for abandoning his true calling, the poetry and painting he left behind in Mexico. At one point he imagines that he hears the waters of the Knox calling to him, inviting him to commit himself to its depths (apparently the Knox knows who C. B. is destined to marry and is hoping to save him some grief). Rather than take the hint, C. B. Whiting decides to go to war with God and brings in experts who advise him to blast away a spit of land called the Robideaux blight.
Like God himself, the Knox giveth, and the Knox taketh away: Whiting achieves, at least temporarily, his goal of redirecting garbage from his doorstep, but in the bargain he gets Francine Robideaux, a far more formidable obstacle to his future happiness than any mere piece of land. Like the land she comes from—where little will grow and farming is next to impossible—Francine is a woman nearly barren of normal human emotion. When Francine gives birth to a daughter, motherhood does nothing to improve her drought of feeling; her newborn daughter is described as "writhing and twisting at her mother's meager breast." Later, Cindy's struggles to elicit a few drops of affection from her mother are met with the same frustration. If the river represents God and also love, then Francine's soul is in serious need of irrigation.
The name of the river presents other metaphoric possibilities. In building his hacienda, C. B. Whiting became the first Whiting to distance himself from the source of his wealth, namely, the people who worked in the mill and factory. By putting the river between himself and the rest of the town, he created a fortress—his own Fort Knox. This metaphor becomes even more appropriate with Francine Whiting in charge, given her tendency to hoard her wealth, meting it out to the town in small parcels with many strings attached. "When the woman was dead, it was hoped, the money would flow more freely," Russo writes, just like the Knox River after the Robideaux blight was blasted away.
Another interesting comparison suggested by the name, and also by Grace Roby's frequent use of the phrase "crossing the river," is the similarity between the Knox and the River Styx. In Greek mythology, souls of the dead had to cross the River Styx to enter Hades, the underworld. A ferryman named Charon took the souls across the river, for which he required payment; the Greeks would bury their dead with a coin in their mouths to pay for their passage. Souls who came to the river without their fare at hand—or in this case, at mouth— had to wander the banks of the river for a hundred years before crossing. Once in Hades, souls were required to drink from the waters of the Lethe, another river, which made them forget completely their mortal lives.
The first time that Grace crosses the Knox River, she wears "a dark dress that Miles hadn't seen her wear since the funeral of a neighbor," to visit Francine Whiting and beg her forgiveness. It is not until she begins working for her on a regular basis, though, that Grace Roby begins dying by degrees. "During the years that Grace worked for Mrs. Whiting, Miles saw her lose the last bloom of her womanhood," the narrator states, and then later, "With each passing season, she grew more gaunt, more ghostlike." As if she has drunk the waters of the Lethe, she becomes increasingly forgetful and distant with her family on the "living" side of the river, and more involved with the Whitings. "On each dreaded vacation from St. Luke's [Miles had] witnessed his mother's increasing absence from their own home, even when she was present in the house." Her effectiveness as a parent wanes as her "vagueness about their own family" increases; Miles is concerned that Grace is "so forgetful about his brother."
According to Greek myth, the waters of the Styx were so foul that to drink them was fatal. The waters of the Knox do not sound much tastier: "Generations of Whitings had been flushing dyes and other chemicals, staining the riverbank all the way to Fairhaven." The word "styx," translated from Greek, means "hateful"; the River Styx is then a river of hate. It seems appropriate that Francine Whiting should live next to such a river and even more so that its waters claim her life in the final pages.
Francine Whiting has much in common with Persephone, the Queen of Hades and mate of Hades himself, who rules the underworld. The god Hades is also called Pluto, which, in Greek, means "wealth." Hades, the man of the house, is less dreaded than his queen (whose name means "bringer of destruction.") Even though Persephone only lives in Hades a third of the year—much like Mrs. Whiting, who likes to winter in warmer locales—she is the more fearsome of the couple and, when in residence, takes a more active role in the workings of the underworld. Of course, Mrs. Whiting not only takes an active role, she eventually banishes her husband from Empire Falls entirely. It is unlikely that Persephone would be so bold.
The entrance to Hades is guarded by a threeheaded dog named Cerberus; Mrs. Whiting's Hades is guarded by Timmy the Cat, who has just one head, though to Miles, who is bitten and scratched regularly by Timmy, it may seem like more. Timmy comes to the Whitings from the river itself and leaves by the river, ushering Mrs. Whiting into the hereafter: "astride the body, crouched at the shoulders of the dead woman, was a red-mouthed, howling cat." In the end, Mrs. Whiting is a mere mortal, though Miles's shock at her passing indicates that she never gave him that impression: "Miles shook his head, trying to imagine a world without Mrs. Whiting in it. Who would keep it spinning?"
So what the Knox River signifies depends on how the novel is interpreted. For those inclined to fatalism, there is Mrs. Whiting's theory: that life is a river, human destiny is predetermined, and the best people can do is to go with the flow. Certainly Max Roby would embrace this philosophy. Miles would be more inclined to think of the river as proof of God's power, as C. B Whiting ultimately does: "When he … saw the swift water … he recalled his war with God over the moose and he realized for the first time that God had won, that as an arrogant sinner the only course left to him was penance." Maybe it is a combination, a life-giving entity created by God, then poisoned by the greed and arrogance of one family for generations. Then God, fed up with the Whitings, takes it back.
One thing is certain: the people of Empire Falls owe the Knox River a debt of gratitude. In sweeping Mrs. Whiting out of her gazebo, the river does more to brighten this town's future than any group of investors ever do.
Source: Laura Pryor, Critical Essay on Empire Falls, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
In the following interview, Russo discusses the writing process, the protagonist in Empire Falls, and the difficulties in translating the novel into a screenplay.
[Interviewer:] When did you start work on Empire Falls, the novel?
[Richard Russo:] Actually, I've been working on Empire Falls coming up on a decade now. The idea would have gone back at least five years before that. What usually happens is that when I start getting close to the end of a novel, something registers in the back of my mind for the next novel, so that I usually don't write, or take notes. And I certainly don't begin. I just allow things to percolate for a while.
Most of my novels begin with a character in some sort of dramatic situation that I don't know how to solve. One of the first things that I had with Empire Falls was this notion of Miles Roby, a character that I was interested in. And I think from the start I thought of him as a man trapped not only by circumstance, but by love as much as by anything else. Mrs. Whiting has got Miles trapped. She's got him running that restaurant that he's promised to run until she dies, at which point she'll give him the restaurant. But she comes from a very long-lived family, so while he might want to do other things, as long as he's good to his word with her, she's got him trapped right where she wants him.
But the more important thing, the thing that always intrigued me about Miles was that he wasn't so much trapped by economic necessity, although that's the way he talks about it. He says, I can't move until the restaurant is mine, until I can sell it, I don't have the money. That's a theme that I'm sure is not new to me, but you don't see it all the time. And it interested me that a man in middle age could be trapped by a couple of different kinds of love. One of which resides in the past, and the other sort of in the future.
He's trapped by his affection for his dying mother, and what her dreams for him were, and not trying to betray those dreams. He gets into this situation coming home to Empire Falls and taking over that restaurant because of his love for her, and his refusal to abandon her when she gets ill. So he's trapped by the past, and by decisions that he's made in the past.
But the other great love of his life, of course, is his daughter. And it's her future that he's thinking of all the time. Even as he can think of things that he could do to make himself happier, they all seem to compromise his beloved daughter, Tick.
So the central characters in it are compromised by a past, and a future that are impinging upon the present all the time.
Do you usually have specific themes in mind that you want to explore?
No. It's usually the other way around. When I look back over my novels what I find is that when I think I'm finished with a theme, I'm generally not. And usually themes will recur from novel to novel in odd, new guises.
There's a way in which my early novels centered around fathers and sons, and male behavior, but the idea of family was kind of central to them. Empire Falls is, in a way, my first father daughter story. Which was, I suppose, inevitable given the fact that I have two daughters who were junior high school and high school age when I was writing this novel.
So it's not all that surprising that my interest in family, in the relationship of parents and children, which had manifested itself as fathers and sons in earlier work, and is now fathers and daughters in this novel.
It wasn't that I sat down in the beginning and said, oh, it's time I wrote a father daughter story. It's just I was interested in this character of Miles, and then suddenly his daughter was right there. And she began to take on the characteristics of my own daughters. And my devotion to my own girls began to play itself out in some sort of fictional form.
And lo and behold, I was writing again, coming from a slightly different direction on some things that I had been writing about in Straight Man, and in Nobody's Fool, and in The Risk Pool. Ultimately, your theme will find you. You don't have to go looking for it. [LAUGHS]
How do you approach structuring a story with so many complex interwoven characters?
That's a good question, because I'm struggling with it right now in a new novel where I'm doing exactly that. My belief, and sometimes beleaguered belief, is that even when I try to write a small, contained story, it's just the nature of my imagination for things to expand outward.
And so I've kind of learned over the years that usually my efforts to contain things don't work out very well. It's the reason I write so few short stories. And the reason my novels, even when I think that they're going to be short when I begin, ultimately turn out to be longer.
I see a character, and then I know suddenly who his father and mother were, and who his uncle was, and who his siblings were, and who his best friend was when he was growing up. And suddenly I've got what seemed like a very small painting now is a much larger canvas with a lot more people on it. And my belief has always been that if you follow these characters, they will tell you what their relationship is to each other, and to your story, and to their themes.
And so you just kind of have faith. You give them life, you set them loose in the world, and you have to trust as much as you can that they will come back to you with the answers that you don't possess. And will, ultimately, surrender themselves to a structure once that structure has been made known to you.
If that all sounds kind of mystical, it's because I really don't know how it works, but I trust that it does. I try to write the way I read, in order to find out what happens next. What these people are to each other, and what they are to the story. And structure is one of the things that I always hope will reveal itself to me. Because ultimately they do. They all have to work together eventually.
What was the process like, turning your novel into a screenplay? Did you have to kill a lot of your favorite children, as they say?
Well, no. I mean, the fact that we were doing it for HBO, and that we were going to have three and a half hours to spend made my job, um, I was going to say easier. In fact, what it actually did was made it doable. If it had been a two-hour movie, I would have had to turn it over to somebody else. I just couldn't see how it could be done.
The most difficult thing about writing the screenplay for Empire Falls was what I alluded to earlier. Was that the screenplay was based on a novel that had already cost me more than any other novel I'd written, emotionally.
When I finished with the novel I felt drained, in need of a blood transfusion. I decided to put together a collection of short stories just to avoid beginning another novel. I was so exhausted I just couldn't see my way clear to starting that.
I was working on another screenplay, and looking forward to somebody else, actually, doing the screenplay for Empire Falls. Because I thought, at the time, what it needed more than anything else was a pair of fresh eyes. I was toast, I thought, at that point, and did not look forward to what I knew was not going to be an easy adaptation, even if we did have three and a half hours to accommodate the novel's complexities. It was still going to be difficult.
And I told Paul Newman when he was trying to convince me to do it that I just wasn't sure I was up to it. That I was tired, and I had given these characters everything I had. It was Paul, really, that talked me out of that, and said, of course you're tired now. But it really should be you. Nobody's going to know it as well as you do. And you're going to be surrounded with good people.
All of which I knew, but I needed some convincing on that point. I wrote a draft or two, which I shared with Paul. And then Marc Platt came on board, who was enormously helpful. I did several drafts with him, and with Scott Steindorff.
And just about the time that I was thinking once again that I was out of gas, we took it to the studio and got very good notes from HBO. I mean, HBO is really famous for hiring good people and staying out of their way until they ask for help, or need it. And that reputation is earned.
And then the final piece of the puzzle was (director) Fred Schepisi, who came in really at a time where everything seemed stale. Everything that I had done seemed a reworking of something that I had done before. I just couldn't see anything fresh anymore. And Fred came on board, and sat down with me over the script. And we'd actually done a couple of things that he thought were taking it in the wrong direction.
Fred got me to see things with those fresh eyes that I'd been looking for right from the start. And here was yet another new set of fresh eyes.
And so it was really, largely a matter of people keeping me as fresh as they could, and as enthusiastic, and as energized as was possible at the end of what was, for me, a very long road. I mean, there's always difficulty when you're adapting your own novel to the screen, which is why most writers don't adapt their own work.
What do you hope the audience will take away from the movie?
I guess I would retreat to what is both my glib and my truthful answer. I can be glib and truthful all at once here. [LAUGHTER] I remember when I was teaching at a state university in the Midwest. And the university would bring in one major figure to give a lecture. And the writer that we brought in to visit the university that year was Isaac Bashevis Singer. And he gave a wonderful reading that night. But during the day, all the honors students got together for an hour and a half just with Mr. Singer. And the students kept asking Mr. Singer, ‘What is art?’ And, ‘What is the purpose of literature?’ And he said, ‘The purpose of literature is to entertain,’ he held up one finger, ‘to entertain and to instruct.’
Then he let his voice fall. And another student said, ‘Well, yes, but shouldn't literature also …’ And he interrupted him. He said, ‘To entertain, and to instruct.’ Three or four other students tried to get him to elaborate on these two principles, and even asked him, ‘Which is more important?’ And he said, ‘I gave them to you in the order of importance’ …
And here's this eighty-five-year-old man. And you just could not budge him. He had been asked a simple question, and he was giving a simple answer. And it was one he had been thinking about all his life: the purpose is to entertain and to instruct.
So, I would hope that people would first of all be entertained. Because I think it's very funny. And I think people will see that. They will marvel at these wonderful performances.
What Do I Read Next?
- The Great Gatsby (1925), by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is one of Russo's favorite novels; Francine Whiting quotes the last line of it when she meets with Miles in the Planning and Development Office in chapter 2.
- Russo also counts Charles Dickens's Great Expectations (1860-1861) as one of his favorites and Dickens as one of his favorite authors. Russo's novels often have a large cast of quirky characters that more than one critic has described as Dickensian.
- Russo's second novel, The Risk Pool (1988), is probably the most autobiographical of Russo's books; the character of Sam in this novel was based, in part, on Russo's own father, who was dying at the time that Russo wrote the book.
- Russo was one of four authors to contribute essays about Maine to photographer Terrell S. Lester's book, Maine: The Seasons (2001). The other essayists are Ann Beattie, Richard Ford, and Elizabeth Strout.
- Another of Russo's favorite classics is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884-1885), by Mark Twain. Russo's use of humor is one of his trademarks; in an interview with bookseller Barnes & Noble in 2005, Russo said that Twain's classic "demonstrates that you can go to the very darkest places if you're armed with a sense of humor."
But I hope that if the purpose is to entertain and to instruct, that they will take something away from the movie that was at the center of the novel. I think when horrible things happen, people kind of look at each other and say, ‘Why? Why did this have to happen? Help me understand this.’ And the answers that they get are very often sociological. And often offered in a not a terribly helpful way.
You know, you say, ‘Why did Columbine happen?’ Well, people on the right say it's because of violence in movies and video games. People on the left say it's because of the availability of guns. And the argument goes on as if we have to choose between these explanations.
But really what people are asking is, ‘What does it feel like when something like that happens? What does it feel like to be a parent? What does it feel like to be a child? And that's what stories do. They bring you there. They offer a dramatic explanation, which is always different from an expository explanation.
And I think that if people are instructed about anything, it should be about the nature of cruelty. And about why people behave so cruelly to each other. And what kind of satisfactions they derive from it. And why there is always a cost, and a price to be paid.
Source: HBO, "Interview with Richard Russo," in HBO, 2006.
In the following interview, Russo shares how societal observations, his daughters' influence, and how being a parent has affected his work.
With his most recent novel, Empire Falls, Richard Russo returns to what should be familiar ground—hometown Americana—a place that won him such critical acclaim with his earlier novels of Mohawk and Nobody's Fool. But much has changed in America, and more specifically, in American small towns, within this past decade of economic development and over-reaching one time city-associated social troubles. Still as hilarious as ever, Russo's latest work, like the man himself, is easily accessible. He is a modern day master storyteller. Indeed, not only does such mastery result in an entertaining and effortless read, but a thought provoking one as well …
[Interviewer:] Much is made of the common man / home town themes so prevalent in your novels, but perhaps a more common characteristic of your work has been the sense of humor that each book exudes. Empire Falls is no exception. In fact, at times it is quite hilarious. Often when an author
is asked to comment upon his or her work, it is the "serious" elements that are so easily expounded upon. But our first question is this: What difficulties do you encounter in writing humor? As a writer of literary fiction, do you ever wonder whether your sense of humor will undermine or prevent readers or critics from taking an otherwise epic novel like Empire Falls seriously?
[Russo:] At the risk of appearing disingenuous, I don't really think of myself as "writing humor." I'm simply reporting on the world I observe, which is frequently hilarious. Here's the thing. Most of what we witness in life is too complex to take in whole. Because of this we unconsciously edit what we see, select what to really record and what to ignore, which is why people who look at the same thing don't necessarily see the same thing. I've been in many an English department meeting where I was the only one strangling to keep from laughing. Yet when I reported on those same department meetings in my academic novel Straight Man, many of the same people who didn't find the experience funny when they were living it, did laugh when they saw the same events through my eyes. Comic writers don't so much invent funny things as strip away the distractions, the impediments to laughter. "Try to see it my way," we urge. "Only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong."
I never worry about people not taking my work seriously as a result of the humor. In the end, the comic's best trick is the illusion that comedy is effortless. That people imagine what he's doing is easy is an occupational hazard. Cary Grant never won an Oscar, primarily, I suspect, because he made everything look so effortless. Why reward someone for having fun, for being charming? In "serious" fiction (as in "serious" film) you can feel the weight of the material. You expect to see the effort and the strain of all that heavy lifting, and we reward the effort as much as the success. Comedy is often just as serious, and to ignore that seriousness is misguided, of course, but most writers with comic world views have accustomed themselves to being sold at a discount. Most of us wouldn't have it any other way.
[Interviewer:] Though you have returned to a "small town story" (this time our story is set in Maine not Mohawk) the scope of Empire Falls seems much larger in scale in comparison to your other books. There are timeline shifts and a larger number of significant characters and sub-plots. What difficulties or challenges did the new book present that you had not previous encountered as a writer?
[Russo:] I don't think this book presented any "new" challenges as a result of its scope. Think of it, rather, as a juggling act. The number of objects that have to be kept in the air at one time, along with the variety of their shapes and weights, is what determines the degree of difficulty. It's easier to juggle three same-size rubber balls, than it is five objects that vary in shape and weight. For many of my readers Empire Falls and The Risk Pool are their two favorite Russo novels. I don't know which is the better book, but Empire was much the more difficult to write. It's more complex, less autobiographical, and it's told from an omniscient point of view that's far more demanding than the relatively simple first person of the earlier novel. I'm not aware of anything all that "new" in Empire, just a greater complexity and variety of elements.
[Interviewer:] In your previous novels, whether it was The Risk Pool or Nobody's Fool, the father-son relationship was one of the main focal points of the book. Amy Tan, an author who has successfully explored the mother-daughter relationship, has stated that she is quite relieved that she has not had a daughter of her own. Ironically, though married and with a loving family, you yourself have no sons. Is this, in some small way, a relief or a regret?
[Russo:] I've never regretted not having sons. And perhaps there is even some relief, though I'd never thought of it in those terms until you posed the question. A father of sons is supposed to know what he's doing, whereas a father of daughters is entitled to be incompetent. That sort of thing. Raising children is a task that requires great imagination, but it seems to be expected (especially these days) that imagination will fail to transcend gender, which may mean that the fathers of daughters and the mothers of sons, will be judged less harshly for their failures of imagination.
[Interviewer:] Empire Falls focuses upon the father-daughter relationship, that between Miles and Tick. Having two daughters of your own, how much personal research found it's way into the new book? And have your kids offered their critique of the book?
[Russo:] Both my daughters were in high school when I began Empire Falls, a novel that centers, at least in significant part, on the experience of high school. I've thanked both girls on the acknowledgments page for their willingness to talk with me about their high school experience, especially as it related to cruelty, which drives so much of the novel's narrative. I used a fair amount what they told me, usually in altered form, but I think their greater gift was that their stories caused me to remember things that had happened when I was their age, the kind of terrible, thoughtless, psychic cruelty that was inflicted on some kids every day of their young lives.
Both my daughters have now read Empire Falls, though neither has been particularly talkative about it. My favorite small critique came from my younger daughter who remarked, regarding one of the more vividly cruel incidents in the novel, "I didn't remember telling you about that." She hadn't. It was something I'd remembered and embellished from my own adolescence, not hers.
[Interviewer:] Besides the thin teenager Tick, there are several prominent and complex female characters in your new novel, whether it is weight watching Janine, the blunt conversationalist Charlene, levelheaded barkeep Bea, or best of all, the manipulating Mrs. Whiting. That said, however, Miles is clearly still the protagonist of the book. The logical next step would seem to dictate that you might have a central woman protagonist in your next novel. Is this a possibility? Have you grappled with this idea before—and/or—what problems would you expect to encounter in such an endeavor?
[Russo:] You anticipate my every move. I want very much to place a woman in the center of at least one novel of mine, though the idea does make me nervous. I question, among other things, my motives. One of the reasons I'm glad to be fulltime writer these days, and not a member of the Academy anymore, is the kind of lethal atmosphere that's taken root there, largely as a result of Critical Theory and all its attendant idiocy. Courses in The Literary Imagination have now been replaced by courses that suggest no such thing exists, or has ever existed. Old white males, it's now suggested, betray on every page their race, their gender, the nature of the times that informed their narrow, bigoted thinking. Huckleberry Finn is taught not as a great work of the imagination, but rather to reveal the author's prejudice, everything he was unable to transcend. I'd be the first to admit that the literary imagination, mine or anyone's, can't be expected to transcend all human limitations. There is evidence of anti-Semitism in The Great Gatsby, for instance. Authors are flawed, just like everybody else. But the fact that my imagination may be unequal to certain tasks doesn't mean that I shouldn't push it to its limits. Does anyone wish that Flaubert had written his novel about Mr. Bovary?
That said, wanting to place a woman at the center of one of my novels because I have every right to do so, may not be a good enough reason. A far better one might be that, as my recent fiction suggests, in middle age I'm simply getting more interested in women's lives. How could I not be? My wife and I have been married for almost thirty years; I'm the father of two daughters. Also, in middle age, I'm less timid, less afraid of getting things wrong, or of being told I'm getting them wrong. What scares writers most, I suspect, in writing across gender, is sex. Dickens wrote wonderfully about young girls and old women; it was the sexual identity of women that seemed to flummox him, and I sympathize. Tick Roby in Empire Falls and Beryl Peoples in Nobody's Fool are two of my best characters, but their ages allow me to finesse that which is most troublesome and mysterious, that which I'd least like to fail at rendering believably. Then again, as other people have pointed out to me, my writing is reticent on sexual matters anyway, regardless of gender.
[Interviewer:] For an author whose previous works seem to portray a timeless microcosm of either small town Americana or, as in The Straight Man, the mind-numbing neuroses of academia, Empire Falls is a timely work that has some clear connections with the problems of modern day society. I am referring to the implications of the troubled boy John Voss. Did you find yourself writing about the tortured school teen from the angle of an inquisitive author, or more from the view of a real life parent seeking a plausible explanation for such tragedies?
[Russo:] I'd been thinking about school violence since the incident in Paduka, however long ago that was, and I was right in the middle of writing Empire Falls when the events at Columbine took place. I'm not sure I can separate the inquisitive author and terrified father functions, at least not now, after the fact. But after the Columbine shootings, when everyone was asking why, I remember thinking (in inquisitive-author-mode) that answering this kind of question is what fiction is best at. The sociological explanations for school violence—the easy availability of guns, too much violence in the media, too little parental supervision of today's youth—are not terribly satisfying. We suspect that if solutions to these very difficult problems could be engineered, the question of why would still remain. What we really want to know is more like, What did it feel like to aim the gun and pull the trigger? What sequence of events led to this moment? The only knowledge that will be even remotely satisfying is the kind that comes from living that horrible moment imaginatively and understanding what led up to it. That's what literature offers us—the visceral experience of the living moment. So, yes, I was interested in investigating that. But it was out of my role as a terrified parent that the book really grew, I suspect. Like Miles Roby, I've often thought that as parents we have to be vigilant, and the first chapter of the novel opens with Miles anxiously awaiting his daughter's return from school, hoping to catch sight of her, to make sure she's okay. What Miles also knows (and I fear) is that no matter how vigilant you are, the moment you're needed most, you'll likely be elsewhere, dealing with some other distraction. Such knowledge is the basis for parental night sweats, and I've come to think of this book in exactly those terms—one long, vivid, parental night sweat.
[Interviewer:] Another, perhaps more universal societal observation/implication of the new book is the socio-economic implications of revitalization. The image of wealth and beauty of a place like Martha's Vineyard is in sharp contrast to the dreary existence of a dying Maine town. Nevertheless, the line between the two towns is not so permanent, just ask the year-round resident of a place like the Vineyard who can no longer afford to live there, or invite a few wealthy New Yorkers to flee the urban life to a simple town such as Empire Falls, possibly open up some quaint B&Bs and boutiques. Next thing you know, The Empire Grill becomes a successful Starbucks-like chain in every American town from Maine to Montana. In this viscous economic cycle, where does it all end? What's the answer? Most importantly, what words of wisdom would a character like Max Roby have to say?
[Russo:] Earlier this spring, when I was on book tour with Empire Falls in Chicago, Bill Young (the world's greatest literary escort) took me slightly out of our way to show me something he assured me I'd love. It was Cabrini Green, the infamous housing project, now in a state of transition. Some of its horrid high rises have been razed; others await demolition, while the people who still reside in them await relocation somewhere less Dresden-like. But it wasn't the project itself that Bill wanted to show me, but rather the Starbuck's that had opened right across the street. Snap and develop that photo and many people will accuse you of doctoring it. I'm reminded of a line spoken by Peter Falk in an old movie: "This can only mean one thing, but I don't know what it is." Here's a prediction though: the people who'll be drinking designer coffee at three bucks a pop may not be in the picture yet, but they will be. And so it goes.
[Interviewer:] Some readers may have had a hard time reading your work without imagining Paul Newman as one of the characters (for instance, I had him pegged for Max this time)—though I'm not sure that this is a bad thing. Much has been written and made of the success of Nobody's Fool—the book, the movie, and your own subsequent screen-play writing. What, if any, negative consequences have come as a result of your success?
[Russo:] I got a nice phone call from Paul a couple of months ago. He wanted to tell me how much he'd enjoyed Empire Falls. Before hanging up, he said, "If there's a movie I want to play Max. Nobody'd be better at it, either." Too true.
Thanks to technology, I don't think the movie business is as damaging to writers as it used to be, at least not to those of us who live on the opposite coast. Actually, I'm not sure it was ever the movie business that was so poisonous to writers like Fitzgerald and Faulkner, but rather "the life." L.A. (like Las Vegas) is more disorienting than anything else, thanks to its noise and glitter, the ever-present sun reflected off the shimmering water of countless swimming pools. Live there and you can't help but get caught up, and until recently if you wanted to be a screenwriter, you had to live there. Now I can deliver a script as an e-mail attachment and live in Maine, a fine, mostly quiet, unpretentious place where I can hear myself think. For more on this subject have a look at my recent story "Monhegan Light" in the August Esquire.
[Interviewer:] We understand that you are currently working on a short story collection. Known primarily as a novelist, is this new territory for you? You once stated that that one of the wonderful things about being a writer is that once you have finished one book, the next day you can start another one and "begin another life." With the forthcoming collection, what kinds of lives can we look forward to reading about?
[Russo:] It's taken me over a decade to come up with a slender volume of stories. Many of them derive from material that for various reasons I've removed from my novels and then recast. I'm absurdly proud of several of the stories for the simple reason that short fiction requires a tighter hold on the fictional reigns than I'm often capable of exerting. I love the shape and structure of good short stories, the fact that they can be experienced whole. What are the stories about? Well, there's an abused nun; an elderly, disoriented college professor on vacation; a gaffer with a grudge; a woman fleeing her husband; a painter who needs a hip replacement; a kid who suspects that inanimate objects may have inner lives; a writer who fears he may have been poisoned by the town where he grew up. The usual suspects.
Source: failbetter.com, "Interview with Richard Russo," in failbetter.com, Vol. 2, No. 3, Summer/Fall 2001.
In the following excerpt, Epstein discusses how a small town's aura of bad luck, its struggle against resignation, and an unlikely hero are the subject of Russo's Empire Falls.
Text Not Available Due to Permissions
Text Not Available Due to Permissions
Source: Joseph Epstein, "Surfing the Novel," in Commentary, Vol. 113, No. 1, January 2002, pp. 32-37.
American Textile Manufacturers Institute, "The Current State of U.S. Manufacturing and the Impact of the Manufacturing Recession," in Statement to U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Technology, June 21, 2001, p. 1.
Bissell, Tom, Review of Empire Falls, in Esquire, June 2001, p. 42.
Charles, Ron, "Grease Spots on the American Dream," in Christian Science Monitor, May 10, 2001, Features Section, Books, p. 18.
"A Conversation with Richard Russo," in randomhouse .com, 2001, www.randomhouse.com/knopf/authors/russo/ qna.html (accessed September 17, 2006).
Fretts, Bruce, "Maine Attraction: Richard Russo's Empire Falls Draws Readers into the Tangled Lives of Small-town New Englanders," in Entertainment Weekly, May 18, 2001, pp. 72-3.
Graff, Garrett, "Behind the Rampages," in Harvard Magazine, September-October 2002, http://www.harvardmaga zine.com/on-line/0902128.html (accessed August 31, 2006).
Hower, Edward, "Small-Town Dreams: Disappointment Haunts the Characters in Richard Russo's Depiction of Life in a Hapless Maine Backwater Town," in World and I, No. 10, October 2001, p. 243.
Jacobs, Rita D., Review of Empire Falls, in World Literature Today, Vol. 76, Spring 2002, p. 153.
Marcus, James, Review of Empire Falls, in Atlantic Monthly, June 2001, p. 104.
"Meet the Writers—Richard Russo," in barnesandnoble.com, Spring 2005, http://www.barnesandnoble.com/writers/writer.asp?z=y&cid=968838 (accessed September 2, 2006).
Russo, Maria, Review of Empire Falls, in salon.com, May 21, 2001, http://archive.salon.com/books/review/2001/05/21/ russo/index.html (accessed July 28, 2006).
Russo, Richard, Empire Falls, Vintage Contemporaries, 2002.
Scott, A. O., "Townies," in New York Times Book Review, June 24, 2001, p. 8.
Gutman, Richard J. S., American Diner: Then and Now, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.
In this book, Gutman traces the history of the American diner from horse-drawn lunch carts to the classic streamlined stainless steel diners. Included are numerous photographs of the various types of diners, sample menus, and anecdotes about diners across the country.
Moran, William, The Belles of New England, Thomas Dunne Books, 2002.
This book chronicles the history of New England's textile mills, the women who worked in them, and the dynastic families who profited from them.
Russo, Richard, The Whore's Child and Other Stories, Vintage Contemporaries, 2003.
Many stories in this collection have a much darker tone than Russo employed in his novels. The title story is a subplot that was edited from his novel Straight Man.
Yates, Richard, The Collected Stories of Richard Yates, Henry Holt, 2001.
Russo's moving introduction gives a fine appreciation of this collection of short stories by the late Richard Yates, whose writing influenced many other celebrated authors, including Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, and Richard Ford.