The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
, Ted Gioia reviews
Empire Falls
 by Richard
Empire Falls
by Richard Russo

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Despite its Gibbon-esque title, Empire Falls operates on a small scale
with few imperial pretensions. Decline and fall are certainly part of
the story, but the collapse here is centered
on a small Maine town where the victims
are the local workers, who have seen
industries shut down and jobs disappear.
In the township of Empire Falls, people
get by on nostalgic recollections of yester-
year supplemented by unrealistic hopes
for the future.

Stories of struggling inter-generational
family businesses rarely get readers jazzed
up—they much prefer a love story or a
mystery—although authors as diverse as
Thomas Mann (
Buddenbrooks) and Philip
Roth (
American Pastoral) have built
grand fictions on this foundation.
, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002, is not out of place when
mentioned alongside these classics, and like these other novels
works its wonders on the most intimate levels, in spaces where no
accounting debits or credits can capture the closing balance.
Richard Russo uncovers the hidden personal stories—both among
the Whiting family who “own” the town, and the citizens who rely on
the wealthy locals for their own livelihood—and shows that the
individual mishaps and calamities of the high and low are often far
different from what we first suspect, if no less tragic.

Russo’s tale takes on the structure of an unfolding series of
interlocking secrets. The concealed elements of the plot are all the
more insidious given the apparent transparency of everything
happening in the township of Empire Falls. Nothing is harder to
come by in a small town than privacy. Everyone knows that Miles
Roby’s wife Janine is divorcing him, and has taken up with Walt
Comeau, the vain owner of a fitness club. Everybody knows that
Miles’s daughter Tick broke up with her boyfriend, the son of a
mean-spirited local cop. All parties are aware that Miles’s brother
David is a recovered alcoholic and that you can’t trust their father
Max, who would rob the collection plate at church if it stayed in his
hands for more than a second.

Even the Whiting family, for all their local power, can’t hide their
secrets. C.B. Whiting’s suicide is common knowledge, and no one
fails to see how his widow Francine pulls all the strings in Empire
Falls—and pulls them as tightly as she can. I mentioned above that
this town has no imperial pretensions. But that isn’t quite right.
Francine’s hunger for dominance reminds us of what historians tell
us about Livia and Theodora and the other strong-willed Roman
empresses. Her motto is “power and control,” and it is a gameplan
that she always puts into practice.

Whiting takes an active interest in Miles’s life, but he can’t figure out
whether she is his benefactor or adversary. Years ago, she set him
up in the restaurant business, which allowed him to return to his
home town and look after his ailing mother. His mother, however,
was distraught to see her son leave college, and now, years after her
death, Miles can’t help feeling that he let her down and abandoned a
destiny that might have awaited him elsewhere.

Roby has no shortage of friends in town who give him advice and
constructive criticism. His ex-wife’s new lover offers him constant—
albeit useless—business tips. His brother criticizes his passivity. His
shiftless father grumbles about how Miles manages everything from
his painting to his pocketbook. The local cop gripes that he is stuck
up. His ex-wife tells him he is a lousy lover. Mrs. Whiting ridicules
his “over-developed sense of responsibility.”

Roby, for his part, dreams of getting away, but knows in his heart
that this is unlikely ever to happen. At best, he might be able to
secure a better future for his daughter. But this line of thought
reminds him that his mother had the same hopes for Miles—hopes
that were dashed. Finally, when he does break out from his
stultifying life, in the closing chapters of
Empire Falls, he does so in
a manner that surprises everybody—perhaps Miles most of all.

Russo handles his complex and interlocking plots masterfully.
Conflicts that have been brewing for more than a quarter of a
century come to a head in the course of just a few days. In the final
pages, the author juggles so many story lines, that the reader
expects him to drop at least one or two of them. But he keeps
everything moving towards resolution, and amplifies the power of
his narrative by anticipating some events, while withholding key bits
of information until the last possible moment. This is a virtuoso
effort at a structural level, yet one that casual readers might not
fully appreciate, given how smoothly the novelist works his magic.

Russo also handles a large cast of characters, and even the bit roles
are played to perfection. The creepy teenager, the demented priest,
the aging waitress, the fastidious school principal—they all sound
like stereotypes as I describe them here, but by the time our author
has drawn them out, they are fully developed personalities who
greatly enhance the success of
Empire Falls. In particular, Max
Roby, our protagonist’s scheming father, is worthy of his own novel,
and enlivens any scene in which he is present.

Readers may be left breathless by the rapid development of so many
plot lines in the final pages of
Empire Falls. But the surprises here
are more holistic than they might appear at first glance. The
meaning of the early chapters is reconfigured by the ways in which
later events are resolved—almost as if the future can change the
past. For a small town novel, this is some big time stuff indeed; and
certainly there is nothing small about Richard Russo’s talent. In
Empire Falls, he has delivered one of the finest novels of recent
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