Empire Falls

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Empire Falls

by Richard Russo

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group | May 8, 2001 | Hardcover |

4.5 out of 5 rating. 6 Reviews
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Richard Russo-from his first novel, Mohawk, to his most recent, Straight Man-has demonstrated a peerless affinity for the human tragicomedy, and with this stunning new novel he extends even further his claims on the small-town, blue-collar heart of the country.

Dexter County, Maine, and specifically the town of Empire Falls, has seen better days, and for decades, in fact, only a succession from bad to worse. One by one, its logging and textile enterprises have gone belly-up, and the once vast holdings of the Whiting clan (presided over by the last scion's widow) now mostly amount to decrepit real estate. The working classes, meanwhile, continue to eke out whatever meager promise isn't already boarded up.

Miles Roby gazes over this ruined kingdom from the Empire Grill, an opportunity of his youth that has become the albatross of his daily and future life. Called back from college and set to work by family obligations-his mother ailing, his father a loose cannon-Miles never left home again. Even so, his own obligations are manifold: a pending divorce; a troubled younger brother; and, not least, a peculiar partnership in the failing grill with none other than Mrs. Whiting. All of these, though, are offset by his daughter, Tick, whom he guides gently and proudly through the tribulations of adolescence.

A decent man encircled by history and dreams, by echoing churches and abandoned mills, by the comforts and feuds provided by lifelong friends and neighbors, Miles is also a patient, knowing guide to the rich, hardscrabble nature of Empire Falls: fathers and sons and daughters, living and dead, rich and poor alike. Shot through with the mysteries of generations and the shattering visitations of the nation at large, it is a social novel of panoramic ambition, yet at the same time achingly personal. In the end, Empire Falls reveals our worst and best instincts, both our most appalling nightmares and our simplest hopes, with all the vision, grace and humanity of truly epic storytelling.

Format: Hardcover

Dimensions: 496 Pages, 5.91 × 9.45 × 1.18 in

Published: May 8, 2001

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Language: English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10: 0679432477

ISBN - 13: 9780679432470

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– More About This Product –

Empire Falls

by Richard Russo

Format: Hardcover

Dimensions: 496 Pages, 5.91 × 9.45 × 1.18 in

Published: May 8, 2001

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Language: English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10: 0679432477

ISBN - 13: 9780679432470

Read from the Book

PROLOGUECompared to the Whiting mansion in town, the house Charles Beaumont Whiting built a decade after his return to Maine was modest. By every other standard of Empire Falls, where most single-family homes cost well under seventy-five thousand dollars, his was palatial, with five bedrooms, five full baths, and a detached artist''s studio. C. B. Whiting had spent several formative years in old Mexico, and the house he built, appearances be damned, was a mission-style hacienda. He even had the bricks specially textured and painted tan to resemble adobe. A damn-fool house to build in central Maine, people said, though they didn''t say it to him.Like all Whiting males, C.B. was a short man who disliked drawing attention to the fact, so the low-slung Spanish architecture suited him to a T. The furniture was of the sort used in model homes and trailers to give the impression of spaciousness; this optical illusion worked well enough except on those occasions when large people came to visit, and then the effect was that of a lavish dollhouse.The hacienda--as C. B. Whiting always referred to it--was built on a tract of land the family had owned for several generations. The first Whitings of Dexter County had been in the logging business, and they''d gradually acquired most of the land on both sides of the Knox River so they could keep an eye on what floated by on its way to the ocean, some fifty miles to the southeast. By the time C. B. Whiting was born, Maine had been wired for el
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From the Publisher

Richard Russo-from his first novel, Mohawk, to his most recent, Straight Man-has demonstrated a peerless affinity for the human tragicomedy, and with this stunning new novel he extends even further his claims on the small-town, blue-collar heart of the country.

Dexter County, Maine, and specifically the town of Empire Falls, has seen better days, and for decades, in fact, only a succession from bad to worse. One by one, its logging and textile enterprises have gone belly-up, and the once vast holdings of the Whiting clan (presided over by the last scion's widow) now mostly amount to decrepit real estate. The working classes, meanwhile, continue to eke out whatever meager promise isn't already boarded up.

Miles Roby gazes over this ruined kingdom from the Empire Grill, an opportunity of his youth that has become the albatross of his daily and future life. Called back from college and set to work by family obligations-his mother ailing, his father a loose cannon-Miles never left home again. Even so, his own obligations are manifold: a pending divorce; a troubled younger brother; and, not least, a peculiar partnership in the failing grill with none other than Mrs. Whiting. All of these, though, are offset by his daughter, Tick, whom he guides gently and proudly through the tribulations of adolescence.

A decent man encircled by history and dreams, by echoing churches and abandoned mills, by the comforts and feuds provided by lifelong friends and neighbors, Miles is also a patient, knowing guide to the rich, hardscrabble nature of Empire Falls: fathers and sons and daughters, living and dead, rich and poor alike. Shot through with the mysteries of generations and the shattering visitations of the nation at large, it is a social novel of panoramic ambition, yet at the same time achingly personal. In the end, Empire Falls reveals our worst and best instincts, both our most appalling nightmares and our simplest hopes, with all the vision, grace and humanity of truly epic storytelling.

About the Author

Richard Russo lives in coastal Maine with his wife and their two daughters. His novels Mohawk, The Risk Pool, Nobody's Fool and Straight Man are available in Vintage paperback.

Author Interviews

Q: Was there a particular event or image that sparked EMPIRE FALLS? A: When I finish a novel, it’s hard to go back and try to reconstruct its beginnings. It’s a little like an interrogation: what did you know and when did you know it? Here are a couple of things, though. When I was living in Waterville, Maine, some years ago, a factory closed down that had employed a large number of women who had been sewing famous-label men’s dress shirts for much of their lives. They’d done everything they could to save their jobs and the factory, but the multi-national company that owned it shut them down anyway. That struck me as a story that was playing out all over the country, if not the world. From the beginning of my writing career, I’ve always been interested in ordinary people swept up in economic and political forces they can’t begin to comprehend, as well as in the changing face of American labor. Becoming a writer has only deepened my sympathies for working people, who are always, it seems to me, the first to be sold out. The other event that had burrowed deep was the school shooting in Paducah, especially the question it begged: how could such a thing happen here? The answers that are typically offered to such questions are sociological and political—tighter gun control, return to family values, reducing violence on television and video games. Better answers to such impossible questions, I’ve always thought, are offered by novels, which ask you to live horror rather than
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Editorial Reviews

"In a warmhearted novel of sweeping scope.... Russo follows up his rollicking academic satire, Straight Man (1997), with a return to the blue-collar melieu featured in his first three novels and once again shows an unerring sense of the rhythms of small-town life, balancing his irreverent, mocking humor with unending empathy for his characters and their foibles"-Booklist

Bookclub Guide

Richard Russo lives in coastal Maine with his wife and their two daughters. His novels Mohawk, The Risk Pool, Nobody's Fool and Straight Man are available in Vintage paperback.

1. Richard Russo''s description of town of Empire Falls is as memorable and vivid as his portraits of the people who live there. How do the details he provides about the town''s setting and its streets, buildings and neighborhoods create more than a physical backdrop against which the story is played out? How does the use of flashbacks strengthen the sense of the town as a "living" character?

2. "One of the good things about small towns, Miles''s mother had always maintained, was that they accommodated just about everyone" [p. 21]. Is this an accurate description of Empire Falls? Which characters in particular benefit from this attitude? What influences the level of tolerance Miles is willing to extend to Max Roby, Walt Comeau and Jimmy Minty, all of whom are constant irritants to him? What does he see as the redeeming characteristics of each of them?

3. Why is his relationship with Tick so important to Miles? In what ways is it reminiscent of his mother''s attachment to him? How do Grace''s expectations for Miles, as well as her ultimate disappointment in him, shape the way he is raising Tick?

4. Even before the full story of Grace and Max''s marriage is revealed, what hints are there that Grace was less than the ideal wife and mother Miles remembers and reveres? Why does Miles choose to accept his mother''s version of events of their trip to Martha''s Vineyard, even though it entails a betrayal of his father [pp. 136-47]? When Miles finally realizes who Charlie Mayne really is, does it change his feelings about Grace in a significant way? Would he have felt differently if Grace were still alive and able to answer his questions [pp.338-9]? How does Miles''s own situation-particularly his separation from Janine and his discovery of the relationship between Charlene and David-color his reaction to his mother''s affair? How does his brief conversation with Max about Grace and Charlie [p. 373] shed light on the relationship between father and son?

5. Janine calls Miles "The World''s Most Transparent Man" [p. 42] and Tick says, "It''s not like you don''t have any [secrets] . . . It''s just that everybody figures them out" [p. 107]. Does Mrs. Whiting share this image of Miles? What evidence is there that she sees and understands more about the "real" Miles than the people closest to him do?

6. How does Russo use minor characters to fill out his portraits of the main figures? What roles do Horace Weymouth, Bea Majeski, Charlene and Otto Meyer play in shaping your impressions of and opinions about Miles, Janine and Tick?

7. How do David''s feelings about Mrs. Whiting and the Empire Grill differ from Miles''s? Whose attitude is more realistic? Is David''s harsh criticism of Miles''s passivity [pp. 224-5] justified? What insights does it give you into David''s character? Is David more content with his life than Miles is with his own, and if so, why?

8. Charlene tells Miles: "David has this theory that between your mom and dad and him and you there''s, like, one complete person" [p. 226]. Has each member of the family selected a particular role, or has it been thrust upon him or her? Is the division of roles a natural part of family life? Which member of the Roby family is the "most complete," and what sacrifices did he or she make to establish a strong individual identity?

9. What does Father Mark offer Miles that he cannot get from his other relationships? Is Miles drawn to him only because he is a priest? Why does Russo depict both priests as flawed men-Father Mark by his sexual longings and Father Tom by his dementia? How would you characterize the impact of Catholicism on Miles and Grace? Does attending church genuinely comfort them, or is it a convenient way of hiding from the problems in their lives and the decisions they have made? In what ways do Grace''s confession to Father Tom and the penance he demands affect her character and her outlook on life?

10. Why does Tick befriend John Voss? How does her sense of responsibility for him compare to Miles''s feelings-both when he''s a child and a grown man-about Cindy Whiting? Are the differences attributable to the circumstances that bring each pair together, or do they reflect something deeper about Tick''s and Miles''s morality and their ability to empathize with other people? What other incidents demonstrate Tick''s understanding of what other people need? Why is she unable to treat Janine in the same comfortable, nonjudgmental way she treats Miles and Max Roby?

11. Would you define Mrs. Whiting as a mother figure for Miles? Does she perceive herself in this way? Does Miles? Beneath their very different personas, what traits do Mrs. Whiting and Grace share? Do they represent strengths and weaknesses usually associated with women? In what ways does Mrs. Whiting''s description of her relationship with Grace [p. 435] reaffirm their similarities? Which woman is more honest with herself about her motivations and feelings?

12. All of the marriages in Empire Falls fail in one way or another. Does your sense of who is responsible for each marital breakdown change as the events of the past and present unfold? Discuss the contrast between the way each of these marriages is initially described and the "real" stories: Grace and Max; Mr. and Mrs. Whiting; Miles and Janine. Mrs. Whiting says "Most people . . . marry the wrong people for all the wrong reasons. For reasons so absurd they can''t even remember what they were a few short months after they''ve pledged themselves forever" [p. 169]. How does this assessment apply to the marriages mentioned above?

13. From the almost unimaginable cruelty of John Voss''s parents to Mrs. Whiting''s coldness toward Cindy, to Grace''s emotional withdrawal from David (and to some extent Miles) when she joins the Whiting household, the novel contains several examples of the emotional and physical harm parents inflict on their children. Why do you think Russo made this a central theme of the book? Does it adequately explain, or even justify, behavior you would otherwise find completely unacceptable?

14. Empire Falls traces three very different families-the Whitings, the Robys, and the Mintys-through several generations. What do each of these families represent in terms of American society in general? How do their fates embody the economic and social changes that have occurred over the last century? To what extent are the members of the current generation trapped by the past?

15. What does Empire Falls provide that its residents might not be able to find in another town or city? Does living in a small town necessarily limit the satisfactions people get out of life? Miles says, "After all, what was the whole wide world but a place for people to yearn for their hearts'' impossible desires, for those desires to become entrenched in defiance of logic, plausibility, and even the passage of time?" [p. 295]. Is he right? Which characters might have had better, more fulfilling lives if they had moved away from?

16. In contemplating the past year, Tick says, "Just because things happen slow doesn''t mean you''ll be ready for them. If they happened fast, you''d be alert for all kinds of suddenness. . . "Slow" works on an altogether different principle, on the deceptive impression that there''s plenty of time to prepare" [p. 441]. How does this relate to the novel as a whole and the way it is structured? Why has Russo chosen Tick to express this insight?

17. What adjectives would you use to describe Empire Falls? How does Russo make the story of a dying town (with more than its share of losers) entertaining and engaging? Did you find most, if not all, of the characters sympathetic in some way?

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