Small (Real) Worlds
Richard Russo has been quietly building his reputation as one of America’s better novelists, not by writing the ever-elusive “Great American Novel” but by writing novels about life in small towns filled with characters who have real concerns and real struggles, and who are so deftly drawn that we forget we are reading a book at all.
Reading Empire Falls, Russo’s fifth novel, is like catching up with an old friend—it just feels good (that and you’re sure to get some good gossip). With a sprinkling of the dry humor we’d seen in Straight Man and the drama of Nobody’s Fool (which was made into a movie starring Paul Newman), Russo has written, for the most part, a balanced book about economic, social and moral power struggles in a small town in Maine.
After a somewhat over-lengthy prologue (which is largely a summary of local textile tycoon C.B. Whiting’s life), we enter the story nearly twenty years after the protagonist, Miles Roby, has quit college and come home to tend his dying mother, at the request of Whiting’s widow Francine. Grace Roby, having spent most of her life as a savant to Francine and her daughter, who was disfigured in a car accident, goes to her grave keeping a secret that Miles needs to discover. As the novel unfolds we begin to see how the Whiting mother and daughter became a kind of surrogate family that was both a blessing and a curse for her.
Though her death takes place offstage before the book starts, Grace’s life choices and decisions have had far-reaching consequences for Miles’s life. The manager of a grill that is barely making ends meet, Miles is both enticed by the idea of buying a bookstore he cannot afford on Martha’s Vineyard and reserved about leaving town because ownership of the grill has been promised to him in Francine’s will. Meanwhile, his younger brother David, also maimed in a car accident, keeps coming up with food ideas that begin to attract customers from nearby college towns. Strangely, this new prosperity is just the opposite of what Francine wants, and this reluctance of hers begins to work on Miles’s mind. His questioning of key elements of his past, including his own boyhood trip to Martha’s Vineyard, start to unravel the true relationship Francine Whiting has with him, layers and layers of subterfuge and deception, magnanimity and patient malice.
Interestingly enough, the town of Empire Falls is as much a character in this book as it is a setting. Or maybe it would be more precise to say that the town could also be seen as a kind of attire (which is interesting given the town’s chief source of prosperity). Through sparse bits of flashback and dialog, we piece together several decades of its history—from the relative prosperity of its textile-mill and shirt-factory days to its economic decline and hints of an economic upswing. Russo does this masterfully within the context of the lives of the people who live there. We see key elements of the town’s history as Miles sees it, and we begin to see a parallel between his life and the town in general. With the death of C.B. Whiting, Francine has become the wealthiest woman in the state of Maine, wielding her power through the ownership of property and the calling and granting of favors. We begin to see the scope of her power, her intellect, and the depth and patience of her motives for revenge. After her husband sucked all the wealth out of the town, she donned it—buildings, lives and all—like an extravagant, if moldering, coat.
All of this might get tiresome were it not for Russo’s ability to weave amusing subplots into the story. He does a very good job of tempering the serious subject matter with levity. Miles Roby’s ex-wife discovers that her fiancé is not as rich as he pretends to be but wants to marry him anyway, out of spite for her mother and Miles. Miles’s father, Max, a man with no self-conscience, talks a senile old priest into pilfering the church coffers so they can head down to Florida. Miles agrees to paint the church, steeple and all, even though he is afraid of heights. Through it all, Miles seems to stand in the center of a whirling storm of events large and small, preposterous and sad, funny and serious. It shapes his character the way smoke fills out a beam of light.
Having said this, the book is nearly ruined near the end when a despicable teen-age character shows up at school with a gun and shoots a number of classmates. Not that this event is beyond the interest of literature, but that such a horrific event is treated as a mere subplot and is nowhere near as interesting as the themes already developed. It is overkill, it is out of place, and it is at this point that the text starts to veer between past and present tense and Russo loses control of the narrative. He does grab hold of the story again, however, and manages to pull out an ending that is strong and satisfying, despite his past history for weak endings.
There are minor, irritating flaws, too. His grasp of technology seems weak at best (he repeatedly refers to Miles’s daughter “getting hooked up to an email server” when he is really talking about installing client-side software to receive email). Italicized passages are sometimes character flashbacks and other times narrative history.
Still, this is a very good book. Russo may not be a household name, but he is a solid mid-list author who writes novels that are fun and interesting to read and are, at times, thought-provoking. He is neither concerned with the large events that form our American consciousness nor should he be. He is a good old-fashioned storyteller, and that is becoming more and more rare in a literary world that sometimes seeks a clever book at the expense of story.