Richard Russo has focused on fading Middle American towns in several of his earlier books. By now he knows his stuff. His new novel introduces the reader to the town of Empire Falls, Maine. It's been a mill town without a purpose ever since its main industry closed some 20 years ago. Its residents, still stunned, drift. "People rarely knew what they wanted," the local bartender notes. "Despite their certainty that they did know, she'd never seen much compelling evidence...."
Hope springs eternal though. The sight of a limousine with Massachusetts plates sets the townspeople to gossiping. In such diminished circumstances, their sins, like their virtues, are modest. Max Roby, a wily seventysomething retired house painter, convinces a senile priest to steal an offering box so they can spend a winter drinking in Key West. His son Miles works hard, managing a grill whose popularity comes from the fact that the Rexall drugstore next door has been knocked down, allowing a view of the closed mill. In Empire Falls, this is what passes for good luck.
The Roby family is at the center of "Empire Falls." Their predicament is succinctly summarized by Charlene, a waitress whom Miles has spent 25 years lusting after only to discover she has become his brother's girlfriend: "Between your mom and dad and [your brother] and you there's like, one complete person. Your father never thinks about anybody but himself, and your mom was always thinking about other people and never herself. David thinks only about the present and you think only about the past and future." There's more. Miles' daughter Tick doesn't know what to think: She looks at the world with the innocent, exasperated eyes of a teenager. Miles' soon-to-be-ex-wife teaches aerobics at the local health club. She has decided life is easier if you stop thinking entirely. Somehow in the midst of this, Miles must learn his own mind. Except that self-knowledge is not much admired in Empire Falls. Miles prides himself on being a nice guy, a "model of tolerance." Everyone else sees him as a sucker, an easy touch, passive. The health club owner jokes about stealing his wife and then does. Mrs. Whiting, the mill heiress who owns the restaurant, threatens to close it down. The town slips further and further into despair. "Do something," his brother David tells the 42-year-old Miles, "even if it['s] wrong."
The male characters in this book often live on the edge of violent fantasy. Miles and one of the town's police, longtime competitors, get into a fistfight. A teenager goes on a murderous rampage. Frustration at the loss of male prowess is widespread. I counted five men dreaming of beating someone else up in the first 100 pages. To do something even if it's wrong: What a man ought to do in these circumstances, of course, is more difficult than to lash out. It is to heal, to become a complete person, to reintegrate within himself the fractured elements of his family. Miles' journey, like all novelistic journeys, is one of reintegration.
There are a great many readers who will find this multigenerational saga enjoyable. It's got scope and heart and an easy, funny style. "Empire Falls" is recognizable and its inhabitants appealing. Kevin Spacey will play Miles and Kate Beckinsale, ravishing in cotton dresses, will be Grace, his selfless mother, in the flashback scenes. For the raffish Max, who sees "fender benders as opportunities," how about Jack Lemmon? The teenage Tick too, who has turned shrugs into a language, is nicely drawn and would be a treat to watch on screen.
But I had some difficulty with it. I was often distracted by the machinery below the novel's decks. We are tipped off that Grace is pregnant by her frequent trips to the bathroom to vomit.
A character who walks into a bar so shaken he has to have a drink won't tell his interlocutors the "most horrifying and heartbreaking thing he had ever seen." One section ends with the old tease, "I have a proposal for you." At the same time, the story seems too concerned with its symbolic self. Miles is patient. Grace dies devout. "Empire Falls" begins and ends with a flood. In the midst, Mrs. Whiting admires Miles as "a life study in deft navigation." She herself will meet her fate in the water. Miles is frightened of heights and can't paint the church steeple, too-apt symbol of his own failure of ambition and crisis of faith. Symbolic novels don't have to be obscure to work, but when they are this obvious they interfere with the reader's need to imagine the story as drawn from the accidents of life.
Russo's invocation of religion is intriguing, though. Miles' task is to get his act together, to shake off the dust and realize his dream, which in this case is a bookstore on Martha's Vineyard. But what's suggested here is that that's only the first step. Grace did this once, experiencing a life-restoring, two-day affair there. It was her chance to leave Max and find happiness. But when she returned to Empire Falls, the priest told her she had to abandon her lover. It killed the man and left Grace to a life of sorrow. It is a memory that still makes Miles angry, and it is why, 33 years later, he can still dream of killing the priest. He should look again at the meaning of his mother's story. It is more complicated. After her lover's death, Grace resigned herself to growing old alone. Renunciation turned out to suit her. A life of faith may be superior to a life of self-satisfaction.
The same might be said for Empire Falls too. For all its decay, underneath it all the town's very suffering gives it a character more prosperous regions to the south will never have. On some level Richard Russo knows this. Why else would he lavish such affection on it and similar decrepit towns? Why else do the residents cling to it? Grace turns out to be a woman whom "sorrow actually made more beautiful," an epitaph the town of Empire Falls, when the last business finally closes, might claim as well.