Like most of Richard Russo's earlier novels, Empire Falls
is a tale of blue-collar life, which itself increasingly resembles a kind of high-wire act performed without the benefit of any middle-class safety nets. This time, though, the author has widened his scope, producing a comic and compelling ensemble piece. There is, to be sure, a protagonist: fortysomething Miles Roby, proprietor of the local greasy spoon and the recently divorced father of a teenage daughter. But Russo sets in motion a large cast of secondary characters, drawn from every social stratum of his depressed New England mill town. We meet his ex-wife Janine, his father Max (another of Russo's cantankerous layabouts), and a host of Empire Grill regulars. We're also introduced to Francine Whiting, a manipulative widow who owns half the town--and who takes a perverse pleasure in pointing out Miles's psychological defects.
Miles does indeed have a tendency to take it on the chin. (At one point he alludes to his own "natural propensity for shit-eating.") And his role as Mr. Nice Guy thrusts him into all sorts of clashes with his not-so-nice contemporaries, even as the reader patiently waits for him to blow his top. It would be impossible to summarize Russo's multiple plot lines here. Suffice it to say that he touches on love and marriage, lust and loss and small-town economics, with more than a soupçon of class resentment stirred into the broth. This is, in a sense, an epic of small and large frustrations: "After all, what was the whole wide world but a place for people to yearn for their heart's impossible desires, for those desires to become entrenched in defiance of logic, plausibility, and even the passage of time, as eternal as polished marble." Yet Russo's comedic timing keeps the novel from collapsing into an orgy of breast-beating, and his dialogue alone--snappy and natural and efficiently poignant--is sufficient cause to put Empire Falls on the map. --Bob Brandeis
From Publishers Weekly
In the small Maine town of Empire Falls, replete with long defunct logging and textile mills, the Whiting clan embarks on its inexorable demise. The family has owned the town and controlled its environment, economy and inhabitants for generations. Why and how they bring about their own demise unfolds slowly, character by character, incident by incident, year by year. Listeners move as if by free association back and forth in time, layering the lives of Whitings and Robys, and learning about the families' complex interweaving that shapes all of their members. The book begins slowly, but readers are drawn ever deeper into the social saga and closer to the characters' strengths and weaknesses. Protagonist Miles Roby, forced by his mother's early death to abandon his college career, returns home to manage the Whiting family's Empire Grill, and meanwhile deals with divorce, devotion and devastation. McLarty sports a fine reading voice and makes excellent narrative choices. He has only a few special voices (e.g., Miles's profligate father), but it's always clear who is speaking. Free of emphatic attempts at characterization or dramatization, his subtle, unobtrusive narration allows Russo's terrific story to shine. Simultaneous release with the Knopf hardcover (Forecasts, Apr. 9).
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