A story that hits it home

Empire Falls

By Richard Russo

empire“…it was possible to sit at the lunch counter and see straight down Empire Avenue all the way to the old textile mill and its adjacent shirt factory…”

So describes the view from the Empire Grill, on of the dives of Empire Falls, a small fictional Maine town. This Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Richard Russo is wonderful for so many reasons.

It is set in a town not dissimilar to the one I grew up it. The towns were both once great, with booming mill industries that provided common men a decent livelihood as long as they were willing to do the arduous, noisy, work. But times change. Towns change. People change.

Miles Roby, a 40-something divorced father, is a hardworking man. The manager of the Empire Grill. He hopes to someday own the place, after the current owner – Francine Whiting – dies. Whiting is the wife of Charles Whiting, who was the heir to the mills. Though the mills are shuttered and idle, the Whiting made out with a goodly amount of money. Charles killed himself years ago, for reasons learned in the book.

The book jumps between a few viewpoints. It primarily bounces between Miles’s present perspective and his past memories. His mother worked hard. Paying for him to go to college. Praying he would never return to Empire Falls – to be trapped there. His father was a house painter, but more frequently drunk. When Miles’s mother is diagnosed with breast cancer, he returns to care for her. Ultimately, he never finishes college. He marries and has a daughter, Tick.

The story is also shown through the eyes of Charles Whiting, a presence that still effects the town even though he was rarely present in it. His chapters are set in all italics, which makes for arduous reading, but also gives the impression of a style of cursive long abandon.

Other characters offer perspective too, when these characters aren’t around just to add context to the town. Tick shows life instead the school. The Mintys offer some cruel disharmony, while ex-wife Janine adds more comedic self-centeredness in her antagonist role.

One view that is never really heard, but only seen through the eyes of others, is that of the mysterious John Voss. He is a quiet boy, who lives with his grandmother on the fringe of town and society, after his parents abused and abandoned him. I think the logic behind this lack of viewpoint is critical to the book’s climax, which I wasn’t expecting at all, despite the warning triggers. I won’t give it away, but vast tragedy is never anticipated.

Ultimately, the book isn’t really about of the plot points because then it would just be a story about some middle-aged dude finally figuring who he is and what he wants. Its about family. Its about sacrifice. It is about resolving your past and building your future.

Miles Roby is not a saint nor a criminal. He is just an average guy doing the best he can under shitty circumstances. And in the end, I think he gets what he deserves, finally.

P.S. Tick and a boy she meets on vacation write letters to each other, resulting in a relationship. So yay! for love letters.