“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. ”
Coming off my completion of Conrad Richter’s The Town, which was his final exploration of the pioneer movement, a family learning to cope with the changes taking place around them as a small town sprung onto the landscape, I wanted to tackle a novel that explored the next logical step in history—the stagnation of a small town.
With only about 25 novels left in this project, my choices were limited, but no better option, I don’t think, could have presented itself than Richard Russo’s 2002 Pulitzer-winning novel Empire Falls.
This was obviously the first novel to win the Pulitzer in post-9/11 America and I think the reasoning for its win shows in its pages. Despite its flaws as a novel and despite Russo’s flaws as a writer (of this particular book, anyway), it is the tremendously flawed characters and their interactions with each other and their tremendously flawed town that really brings this book to life.
In those dark days and months proceeding 9/11, America underwent a surge of nationalism. The sort of nationalism that infected you and inspired you all at once and you just couldn’t help but spread the infection to everyone around you. We were sticking flags out of car windows, wearing red, white, and blue, letting country singers crawl out of the woodwork and up the charts, hell we even let our President declare war on two countries at the same time.
It was a celebration of the country, but also of the people and places that make it.
Empire Falls, Maine is the eponymous setting of this novel and it is just like any other Small Town, USA you can think of. It’s full of hard-working, law-abiding folks that are just trying to make a name for themselves or just trying to scrape by. And those were exactly the sort of people Americans came to revere. And boy did we love to hear a good story about them.
Russo isn’t the greatest storyteller to win the Pulitzer, but his mastery of characters and setting is unreal. The characters in this book—the ever-down-on-his-luck Miles Roby, his ex-wife Janine who is hellbent on improving her lot in life, his smart-as-a-whip-but-tremendously-burdened daughter Tick, his curmudgeonly dad, the small town cop that just wants to be shown a little respect, and, above all, the character of setting, Empire Falls, Maine, that isn’t dilapidated quite yet but is quickly approaching that benchmark—all of them could very well leap off the pages and exist in the real world.
As a reader—nay, as a human being, I know these people. I interact with these people all the time. I’ve lived in this town. Furthermore, the events that take place in their lives that have made them who they are—Empire Falls could truly be a memoir of any Small Town, USA and its inhabitants.
For these reasons, I quickly fell in love with this novel. It was easy to read; not because it was simple, but because it was a pleasure to read. And over the course of its nearly 500 pages, I came to know these characters intimately.
In fact, I could very well be real-life Miles Roby myself. Here’s a guy that you just can’t help but like and, apparently, everybody in this book feels the same way. He’s an honest, hard-working, God-fearing, family-loving guy that wants so much out of life that he just can’t take it; but he never puts himself above looking out for the interest of others. As much as he’d love to look out for Number One, he refuses to take off the yoke of presumed responsibility.
I had hopes and dreams—not necessarily of being someone, but of going somewhere. And that’s all Miles Roby really wants too; he has no illusions of grandeur, he just needs to get out of his dead-end job at the Empire Grille, out of the dead-end town of Empire Falls, out of his dead-end life.
Me too, bub.
Burden. That’s the word I’d use to sum up what this novel is about. Coincidentally, that’s the word that Russo heavy-handedly shoved in my face towards the novel’s end. Each of the characters in this novel are so damn burdened. Burdened to the point that they can’t hardly lift themselves out of their own lives.
Which, again, is what makes Empire Falls so real.