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The New Canon: Empire Falls by Richard Russo

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The New Canon is a regular feature, contributed by Ted Gioia, focusing on great works of fiction published since 1985. These books represent the finest literature of the current era, and are gaining recognition as the new classics of our time. In this installment of The New Canon, Gioia looks at Empire Falls by Richard Russo.

Despite its Gibbon-esque title, Empire Falls operates on a small scale with few imperial pretensions. Decline and fall are certainly part of the story, but the collapse here is centered on a small Maine town where the victims are the local workers, who have seen industries shut down and jobs disappear. In the township of Empire Falls, people get by on nostalgic recollections of yesteryear supplemented by unrealistic hopes for the future.

Stories of struggling inter-generational family businesses rarely get readers jazzed up — they much prefer a love story or a mystery — although authors as diverse as Thomas Mann (Buddenbrooks) and Philip Roth (American Pastoral) have built grand fictions on this foundation. Empire Falls, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002, is not out of place when mentioned alongside these classics, and like these other novels works its wonders on the most intimate levels, in spaces where no accounting debits or credits can capture the closing balance. Richard Russo uncovers the hidden personal stories  — both among the Whiting family who “own” the town, and the citizens who rely on the wealthy locals for their own livelihood — and shows that the individual mishaps and calamities of the high and low are often far different from what we first suspect, if no less tragic.

Russo’s tale takes on the structure of an unfolding series of interlocking secrets. The concealed elements of the plot are all the more insidious given the apparent transparency of everything happening in the township of Empire Falls. Nothing is harder to come by in a small town than privacy. Everyone knows that Miles Roby’s wife Janine is divorcing him, and has taken up with Walt Comeau, the vain owner of a fitness club. Everybody knows that Miles’s daughter Tick broke up with her boyfriend, the son of a mean-spirited local cop. All parties are aware that Miles’s brother David is a recovered alcoholic and that you can’t trust their father Max, who would rob the collection plate at church if it stayed in his hands for more than a second.

Even the Whiting family, for all their local power, can’t hide their secrets. C.B. Whiting’s suicide is common knowledge, and no one fails to see how his widow Francine pulls all the strings in Empire Falls — and pulls them as tightly as she can. I mentioned above that this town has no imperial pretensions. But that isn’t quite right. Francine’s hunger for dominance reminds us of what historians tell us about Livia and Theodora and the other strong-willed Roman empresses. Her motto is “power and control,” and it is a game plan that she always puts into practice.

Whiting takes an active interest in Miles’s life, but he can’t figure out whether she is his benefactor or adversary. Years ago, she set him up in the restaurant business, which allowed him to return to his home town and look after his ailing mother. His mother, however, was distraught to see her son leave college, and now, years after her death, Miles can’t help feeling that he let her down and abandoned a destiny that might have awaited him elsewhere.

Roby has no shortage of friends in town who give him advice and constructive criticism. His ex-wife’s new lover offers him constant — albeit useless — business tips. His brother criticizes his passivity. His shiftless father grumbles about how Miles manages everything from his painting to his pocketbook. The local cop gripes that he is stuck up. His ex-wife tells him he is a lousy lover. Mrs. Whiting ridicules his “over-developed sense of responsibility.”

Roby, for his part, dreams of getting away, but knows in his heart that this is unlikely ever to happen. At best, he might be able to secure a better future for his daughter. But this line of thought reminds him that his mother had the same hopes for Miles — hopes that were dashed. Finally, when he does break out from his stultifying life, in the closing chapters of Empire Falls, he does so in a manner that surprises everybody — perhaps Miles most of all.

Russo handles his complex and interlocking plots masterfully. Conflicts that have been brewing for more than a quarter of a century come to a head in the course of just a few days. In the final pages the author juggles so many story lines that the reader expects him to drop at least one or two of them. But he keeps everything moving towards resolution, and amplifies the power of his narrative by anticipating some events, while withholding key bits of information until the last possible moment. This is a virtuoso effort at a structural level, yet one that casual readers might not fully appreciate, given how smoothly the novelist works his magic.

Russo also handles a large cast of characters, and even the bit roles are played to perfection. The creepy teenager, the demented priest, the aging waitress, the fastidious school principal — they all sound like stereotypes as I describe them here, but by the time our author has drawn them out, they are fully developed personalities who greatly enhance the success of Empire Falls. In particular, Max Roby, our protagonist’s scheming father, is worthy of his own novel, and enlivens any scene in which he is present.

Readers may be left breathless by the rapid development of so many plot lines in the final pages of Empire Falls. But the surprises here are more holistic than they might appear at first glance. The meaning of the early chapters is reconfigured by the ways in which later events are resolved—almost as if the future can change the past. For a small town novel, this is some big time stuff indeed; and certainly there is nothing small about Richard Russo’s talent. In Empire Falls, he has delivered one of the finest novels of recent years.

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