Welcome to Empire Falls, a blue-collar town full of abandoned mills whose citizens surround themselves with the comforts and feuds provided by lifelong friends and neighbors and who find humor and hope in the most unlikely places.
Mr. Russo has turned Empire Falls into the setting for a rich, humorous, elegantly constructed novel rooted in the bedrock traditions of American fiction … Deceptively casual in tone and modest in scope, Empire Falls begins with a beautifully wrought prologue in which a rich man, one C. B. Whiting, pits himself against divine will and assumes he can win ... In this pre-modern, irony-free (despite the priceless dialogue) world, small-town neighbors actually affect one another through their actions and frustrations. And this is a book, however lighthearted and funny, that means business when it contemplates the sight of the church steeple. That Miles means to help paint the steeple but fears heights, just as he cannot seem to rise out of Empire Falls, is another condition diagnosed by Mr. Russo with a gratifyingly light touch. This book works like a prism, regarding the same people and events from different perspectives until they are finally, deeply understood.
Russo knows his characters too well to allow them the luxury of victimhood or to indulge in the grim determinism of some of his peers. His humane sympathy for weakness and self-deception – a sympathy extended even to the manipulative Mrs. Whiting and her minion, a dimwitted policeman named Jimmy Minty – does not rule out stern satiric judgment. The people of Empire Falls are not held down simply by fate or by their own bad choices but by the active collaboration of their neighbors and loved ones … Russo's command of his story is unerring, but his manner is so unassuming that his mastery is easy to miss. He satisfies every expectation without lapsing into predictability, and the last section of the book explodes with surprises that also seem, in retrospect, like inevitabilities. As the pace quickens and the disparate threads of the narrative draw tighter, you find yourself torn between the desire to rush ahead and the impulse to slow down.
Like his hometown, the protagonist of Richard Russo's latest novel, Empire Falls, seems battered and gun-shy, maybe even doomed for the scrap heap. Empire Falls – a generation ago the thriving base of a timber and textile company – is now blemished by abandoned factories and boarded-up stores. Once-mighty Whiting Enterprises has been reduced to an elderly widowed termagant, Mrs. Whiting, with a grown daughter, Cindy, warehoused in a distant mental hospital. The townspeople, deprived of good jobs, bereft of hope, make do on bitterness and regret … Richard Russo layers these tangled relationships into a richly satisfying portrait of a man within a defining community. Not a stylist, the author seems determined to subordinate style to honest and compassionate storytelling. That Empire Falls resonates so deeply is a measure of its unexpected truths.