Richard Russo,
Empire Falls
(Knopf, 2001)

Empire Falls is the story of a small, fictional town in Maine that has seen better years. What once was a rich, booming industry town has quietly turned into an unfamiliar, deteriorated mess. And the tired state of the town conveniently matches the life of lead character Miles Roby, who is only beginning to realize the various pitfalls of his life that the middle-aged man has, up to this point, tolerated.

His ex-wife will soon wed the arrogant and unavoidable Walt Comeau; Mile's daughter, Tick, has hit the rebelling stage and must share time between her mom and dad; Miles' father, Max, is increasingly more difficult; Miles' brother, David, may in fact be growing marijuana (with the police knowing full well of his habits) and then there's Miles himself, whose managerial status at restaurant Empire Grill is simply not fulfilling, a shame considering his sole reason for joining the staff way back when was to be near his ailing mother by dropping out of college. And then he just never left.

On top of all this is Francine Whiting, the town's wealthiest citizen and last remaining remnant (save for her daughter) of the once powerful Whiting family. Though her influence and name no longer carry the same weight as in day's past, the woman (and current owner of Empire Grill) still shares a surplus of influence over at least one individual: Miles, a man who takes pleasure in pleasing others, and hardly himself.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2002, Empire Falls features some of the best written dialogue I have ever come across. Richard Russo has a gift in creating believable conversations between people. I haven't gotten around to seeing HBO's miniseries based on this novel, but I'd assume Russo, who also penned the screenplay, merely lifted his own words for the adaptation. No need to rewrite or even touch up. It's that good.

And I find it especially interesting that Russo's story never feels the need to relocate its characters from the tiny town of Empire Falls to some other location. Nor do the problems. With this book, Russo proves that small-town life can provide enough drama in a person's life (in this case, Miles) as to create an engaging analysis of that character without really ever losing any steam in its narrative. Empire Falls is no more than a slice of life, yet so much more than a slice of life.

review by
Eric Hughes

11 October 2008

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