Empire Falls

Hardcover | May 8, 2001

byRichard Russo

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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.

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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 be...

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.

interview with the author

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 simply witness or think about it.

Finally, in my previous novels I’ve written a lot about fathers and sons. As a father of two beloved daughters, I thought it high time to put a father/daughter relationship at the heart of one of my novels. In fact, now that I look back on it, it’s the thing I’m most proud of in this new book.

Q: EMPIRE FALLS has a large cast of characters, any of whom might have been the center of the novel. How did you decide on Miles Roby, the middle-aged manager of the Empire Grill, as your protagonist?

A: I suppose there are two answers to this question. The first is kind of a non-answer, though it may be the truer. Such decisions are often intuitive; they feel right. Which is another way of saying that you decide before you’re even aware of the fact that you have a decision to make. The more “analytical” answer is that of all the characters in the novel, Miles may be the most trapped—and that’s saying something, since they’re all trapped in one way or another. Janine is trapped by her need to be beautiful; Tick by her youth; David Roby by an accident. Even Mrs. Whiting, who rules the town, is in a way cornered by it. But Miles is trapped more interestingly and more completely--by the past, by his faith, by an old love, by his devotion to his daughter, by his own decency. I’m always drawn to the character whose dilemma is such that I can’t imagine what I would do if I were in his shoes.

Q: People in Empire Falls often remind Miles that he stands to inherit something from Mrs. Whiting, yet the very possibility of this inheritance seems to imprison him. Is this an example of the price of wealth, even predicted wealth?

A: I suppose that’s one way to look at it. My own feeling is that people are generally wrong to wait for others to make good on promises, either explicit or implied. Was it Lillian Hellman who used to tell young women writers: “Don’t expect anyone to save you? Save yourself.” Maybe it was Flannery O’Connor. Somebody pretty damn smart, anyway. It’s good advice, but tough to follow when you’ve been told the check’s in the mail. Whole communities wait for promises to be fulfilled, long after those who made the promises are dead and buried. And like individuals, communities imagine promises and also mishear them. Miles is pretty sure Mrs. Whiting has made a promise, but is it one he heard? Imagined? Hoped for? And even if it were granted, would that be a good or bad thing?

Q: Can you talk about the effect of the collapse of small-town economies on the younger generation, as represented by Miles’s daughter Tick and her peers?

A: I think the place you grow up in is a lot like “The Hotel California”: you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. We’ll never know any place better than the place we grew up, and no place, I suspect, will ever be more important to us, at least in terms of our imaginative lives. For that reason there’s something tragic in the understanding that many kids from small towns have—that in order to be a success in life, they’ll have to leave; to remain behind would be an admission of failure. For many, it means leaving their heart’s home. Then again, there’s a long American tradition, embodied in the novels of Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis and others, which suggests that leaving a small town may be about the best thing that can happen to any young person. One thing seems clear: we’ve become a far-flung nation. “Where do you want to go today?” Bill Gates wants to know. Implied is that nobody wants to stay home.

Q: Miles considers the rich “beautiful people” on Martha’s Vineyard almost foreign to him, and yet he’s drawn to them. Do you find yourself identifying with this perspective?

A: Well, who isn’t attracted to beauty? Or, for that matter, to things foreign? Both Gatsby and Nick Carroway are attracted to the mansions and the fancy cars and the wild parties on Long Island, just as Pip is attracted to privilege in Great Expectations. Show me someone who claims not to be attracted to such things and I’ll show you either a liar or a person with no imagination. That said, wealth and beauty play a key role in Gatsby’s destruction, and they cause Pip to behave in such a way that he loses all sense of his truest self. In the end they send Nick scurrying back to his bedrock Midwest values, feeling like he himself has dodged a bullet. Such is the nature of seduction.

Q: How do you imagine Mainers, and other New Englanders, will respond to the novel?

A: No clue. I thought academics would hate my last novel, Straight Man, but for the most part they’ve embraced it. When I read from the novel on book tour, professors showed up wearing those fake nose/glasses I have Lucky Hank wearing when he threatens to kill a duck a day. In general, I think people like having their experience of life validated; they like to think they count and they’re glad you’ve noticed them, even if you get things wrong. In Empire Falls, I didn’t want to “do Maine” in the sense of using a lot of down-east dialect or local color. Even when I was writing about upstate New York, I was always more interested in locating people by class and work than by region; it’s the latter that makes you a “regional” writer, I suspect.

I hope people in Maine like the book; in the past, I’ve sold very well in New England. But my greater hope is that the book will ring true everywhere.

Q: What might surprise your readers about EMPIRE FALLS?

A: Well, I hope everything and nothing. When a favorite author of mine comes out with a new book, I always hope for two contradictory things: first, I hope it’s like all the other books of his or hers that I love, and second, I hope he’s not going to repeat himself. Sure, it’s a paradox, but I suspect I’m not alone in my desires. So, I hope that when readers pick up Empire Falls and read the first chapter they’ll feel that, yes, they’re in a Russo novel, but not one they’ve read before. I’d also hope that their surprises in the reading parallel my own in the writing; I was surprised on virtually every page, and I hope readers will be too, because I wouldn’t like to think that either my style or my peculiar way of seeing things have become predictable. What surprised me most about the book was how much it took out of me. Even though we know it won’t, most authors keep hoping that writing novels will get easier as a result of experience. It doesn’t, probably because it’s not supposed to.

other books by Richard Russo

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Format:HardcoverDimensions:496 pages, 9.65 × 6.25 × 1.5 inPublished:May 8, 2001Publisher:Knopf Doubleday Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0679432477

ISBN - 13:9780679432470

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Extra Content

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 electricity, and the river, dammed below Empire Falls at Fairhaven, had lost much of its primal significance. The forestry industry had moved farther north and west, and the Whiting family had branched out into textiles and paper and clothing manufacture.Though the river was no longer required for power, part of C. B. Whiting's birthright was a vestigial belief that it was his duty to keep his eye on it, so when the time came to build his house, he selected a site just above the falls and across the Iron Bridge from Empire Falls, then a thriving community of men and women employed in the various mills and factories of the Whiting empire. Once the land was cleared and his house built, C.B. would be able to see his shirt factory and his textile mill through the trees in winter, which, in mid-Maine, was most of the year. His paper mill was located a couple miles upstream, but its large smokestack billowed plumes of smoke, sometimes white and sometimes black, that he could see from his back patio.By moving across the river, C. B. Whiting became the first of his clan to acknowledge the virtue of establishing a distance from the people who generated their wealth. The family mansion in Empire Falls, a huge Georgian affair, built early in the previous century, offered fieldstone fireplaces in every bedroom and a formal dining room whose oak table could accommodate upwards of thirty guests beneath half a dozen glittering chandeliers that had been transported by rail from Boston. It was a house built to inspire both awe and loyalty among the Irish, Polish and Italian immigrants who came north from Boston, and among the French Canadians, who came south, all of them in search of work. The old Whiting mansion was located right in the center of town, one block from the shirt factory and two from the textile mill, built there on purpose, if you could believe it, by Whiting men who worked fourteen-hour days, walked home for their noon meal and then returned to the factory, often staying far into the night.As a boy, C.B. had enjoyed living in the Whiting mansion. His mother complained constantly that it was old, drafty and inconvenient to the country club, to the lake house, to the highway that led south to Boston, where she preferred to shop. But with its extensive, shady grounds and its numerous oddly shaped rooms, it was a fine place to grow up in. His father, Honus Whiting, loved the place too, especially that only Whitings had ever lived there. Honus's own father, Elijah Whiting, then in his late eighties, still lived in the carriage house out back with his ill-tempered wife. Whiting men had a lot in common, including the fact that they invariably married women who made their lives a misery. C.B.'s father had fared better in this respect than most of his forebears, but still resented his wife for her low opinion of himself, of the Whiting mansion, of Empire Falls, of the entire backward state of Maine, to which she felt herself cruelly exiled from Boston. The lovely wrought iron gates and fencing that had been brought all the way from New York to mark the perimeter of the estate were to her the walls of her prison, and every time she observed this, Honus reminded her that he held the key to those gates and would let her out at any time. If she wanted to go back to Boston so damn bad, she should just do it. He said this knowing full well she wouldn't, for it was the particular curse of the Whiting men that their wives remained loyal to them out of spite.By the time their son was born, though, Honus Whiting was beginning to understand and privately share his wife's opinion, as least as it pertained to Empire Falls. As the town mushroomed during the last half of the nineteenth century, the Whiting estate gradually was surrounded by the homes of mill workers, and of late the attitude of the people doing the surrounding seemed increasingly resentful. The Whitings had traditionally attempted to appease their employees each summer by throwing gala socials on the family grounds, but it seemed to Honus Whiting that many of the people who attended these events anymore were singularly ungrateful for the free food and drink and music, some of them regarding the mansion itself with hooded expressions that suggested their hearts wouldn't be broken if it burned to the ground.Perhaps because of this unspoken but growing animosity, C. B. Whiting had been sent away, first to prep school, then to college. Afterward he'd spent the better part of a decade traveling, first with his mother in Europe (which was much more to that good woman's liking than Maine) and then later on his own in Mexico (which was much more to his liking than Europe, where there'd been too much to learn and appreciate). While many European men towered over him, those in Mexico were shorter, and C. B. Whiting especially admired that they were dreamers who felt no urgency about bringing their dreams to fruition. But his father, who was paying for his son's globe-trotting, finally decided his heir should return home and start contributing to the family fortune instead of squandering as much as he could south of the border. Charles Beaumont Whiting was by then in his late twenties, and his father was coming to the reluctant conclusion that his only real talent was for spending money, though the young man claimed to be painting and writing poetry as well. Time to put an end to both, at least in the old man's view. Honus Whiting was fast approaching his sixtieth birthday, and though glad he'd been able to indulge his son, he now realized he'd let it go on too long and that the boy's education in the family businesses he would one day inherit was long overdue. Honus himself had begun in the shirt factory, then moved over to the textile mill, and finally, when old Elijah had lost his mind one day and tried to kill his wife with a shovel, took over the paper mill upriver. Honus wanted his son to be prepared for the inevitable day when he, too, would lose his marbles and assault Charles's mother with whatever weapon came to hand. Europe had not improved her opinion of himself, of Empire Falls or of Maine, as he had hoped it might. In his experience people were seldom happier for having learned what they were missing, and all Europe had done for his wife was encourage her natural inclination toward bitter and invidious comparison.For his part, Charles Beaumont Whiting, sent away from home as a boy when he would've preferred to stay, now had no more desire to return from Mexico than his mother had to return from Europe, but when summoned he sighed and did as he was told, much as he always had done. It wasn't as if he hadn't known that the end of his youth would arrive, taking with it his travels, his painting and his poetry. There was never any question that Whiting and Sons Enterprises would one day devolve to him, and while it occurred to him that returning to Empire Falls and taking over the family businesses might be a violation of his personal destiny as an artist, there didn't seem to be any help for it. One day, when he sensed the summons growing near, he tried to put down in words what he felt to be his own best nature and how wrong it would be to thwart his true calling. His idea was to share these thoughts with his father, but what he'd written sounded a lot like his poetry, vague and unconvincing even to him, and he ended up throwing the letter away. For one thing he wasn't sure his father, a practical man, would concede that anybody had a nature to begin with; and if you did, it was probably your duty either to deny it or to whip it into shape, show it who was boss. During his last months of freedom in Mexico, C.B. lay on the beach and argued the point with his father in his imagination, argued it over and over, losing every time, so when the summons finally came he was too worn out to resist. He returned home determined to do his best but fearing that he'd left his real self and all that he was capable of in Mexico.What he discovered was that violating his own best nature wasn't nearly as unpleasant or difficult as he'd imagined. In fact, looking around Empire Falls, he got the distinct impression that people did it every day. And if you had to violate your destiny, doing so as a Whiting male wasn't so bad. To his surprise he also discovered that it was possible to be good at what you had little interest in, just as it had been possible to be bad at something, whether painting or poetry, that you cared about a great deal. While the shirt factory held no attraction for him, he demonstrated something like an aptitude for running it, for understanding the underlying causes of what went wrong and knowing instinctively how to fix the problem. He was also fond of his father and marveled at the little man's energy, his quick anger, his refusal to knuckle under, his conviction that he was always right, his ability to justify whatever course of action he ultimately chose. Here was a man who was either in total harmony with his nature or had beaten it into perfect submission. Charles Beaumont Whiting was never sure which, and probably it didn't matter; either way the old man was worth emulating.Still, it was clear to C. B. Whiting that his father and grandfather had enjoyed the best of what Whiting and Sons Enterprises had to offer. The times were changing, and neither the shirt factory, nor the textile mill, nor the paper mill upriver was as profitable as all once had been. Over the last two decades there had been attempts to unionize all the factories in Dexter County, and while these efforts failed--this being Maine, not Massachusetts--even Honus Whiting agreed that keeping the unions out had proved almost as costly as letting them in would've been. The workers, slow to accept defeat, were both sullen and unproductive when they returned to their jobs.Honus Whiting had intended, of course, for his son to take up residence in the Whiting mansion as soon as he took a wife and old Elijah saw fit to quit the earth, but a decade after C.B. abandoned Mexico, neither of these events had come to pass. C. B. Whiting, something of a ladies' man in his warm, sunny youth, seemed to lose his sex drive in frosty Maine and slipped into an unintended celibacy, though he sometimes imagined his best self still carnally frolicking in the Yucatán.Perhaps he was frightened by the sheer prospect of matrimony, of marrying a girl he would one day want to murder.Elijah Whiting, now nearing one hundred, had not succeeded in killing his wife with the shovel, nor had he recovered from the disappointment. The two of them still lived in the carriage house, old Elijah clinging to his misery and his bitter wife clinging to him. He seemed, the old man's doctor observed, to be dying from within, the surest sign of which was an almost biblical flatulence. He'd been turning the air green inside the carriage house for many years now, but all the tests showed that the old fossil's heart remained strong, and Honus realized it might be several years more before he could make room for his son by moving into the carriage house himself. After all, it would require a good year to air out even if the old man died tomorrow. Besides which, Honus's own wife had already made clear her intention never to move into the carriage house, and she lately had become so depressed by the idea of dying in Maine that he'd been forced to buy her a small rowhouse in Boston's Back Bay, where she claimed to have grown up, which of course was untrue. South Boston was where Honus had found her, and where he would have left her, too, if he'd had any sense. At any rate, when Charles came to him one day and announced his intention to build a house of his own and to put the river between it and Empire Falls, he understood and even approved. Only later, when the house was revealed to be a hacienda, did he fear that the boy might be writing poems again.Not to worry. Earlier that year, C. B. Whiting had been mistaken for his father on the street, and that same evening, when he studied himself in the mirror, he saw why. His hair was beginning to silver, and there was a certain terrier-like ferocity in his eyes that he hadn't noticed before. Of the younger man who had wanted to live and die in Mexico and dream and paint and write poetry there was now little evidence. And last spring when his father had suggested that he run not only the shirt factory but also the textile mill, instead of feeling trapped by the inevitability of the rest of his life, he found himself almost happy to be coming more completely into his birthright. Men had starting calling him C.B. instead of Charles, and he liked the sound of it.

Bookclub Guide

The questions, discussion topics and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group's discussion of Richard Russo's wonderfully evocative portrait of the small Maine town of Empire Falls. Dominated by the Whiting family, founders of the various mills that provided employment for most of the town's residents, at the turn of the twenty-first century Empire Falls is in sharp decline. Its mills are closed, its stores boarded up, its population dwindling. The families that remain live on memories of the past and the shared fantasy that the mills will reopen and the once-thriving town will experience a renaissance. The formidable Mrs. Whiting, widow of the last Whiting son (and rumored to be the richest woman in central Maine), makes no concession to the community's needs or fantasies, however. As the owner of the few viable businesses left in Empire Falls and a dependable if begrudging source of funds for essential town improvements, Mrs. Whiting wields her power over the town and its inhabitants with an iron will. Miles Roby was once known around town as a young man smart enough to escape Empire Falls. A devoted son, he put his dream on hold when his mother's final illness interrupted his last year of college. Twenty years later, Miles is the proprietor of Mrs. Whiting's just barely profitable Empire Grill, the soon-to-be ex-husband of Janine (who has left him for the slick owner of the flashy new health club) and the proud father of Tick, a bright, loving teenager. Seduced by Mrs. Whiting's promise to bequeath him the grill, Miles stoically submits to her arbitrary, often humiliating demands--until the accidental discovery of a family secret shocks him into a troubling reevaluation of his life and the small town that shaped it. Nothing, however, prepares him for the horrific act that ultimately sets him free. As he exposes the betrayals and self-deceptions, false hopes and genuine desires that motivate his quirky cast of characters, Richard Russo transforms the story of one town into an unforgettable exploration of the human condition. By turns funny, poignant, satiric and shocking, Empire Falls captures us at our best and at our worst.US

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