Sunday, August 01, 2010

Review of Empire Falls

Review: Empire Falls by Richard Russo


It is indeed one of life’s pleasures to read a really good novel. Empire Falls was given to me by a colleague who is an English teacher. He informed me that one idea he had in the past few years was to read as many award winning novels as he could going back over the last twenty years – all the Booker Prize and Pulitzer Prize winners. That way he said he got to read the best of books. Anyway he lent me Empire Falls as one he considered a good read.

As our own famous Irish broadcaster, Mr Gay Byrne is often fond of saying about a good book: “This is a thumping good read.” As one would expect from a Pulitzer Prize winning novel this book tells a gripping story which literally keeps the reader doing just that – reading, and happily forgetting many of life’s little tasks like doing the laundry or preparing dinner or going down to the local shop. As you will infer the writer of these comments is on holidays.

The story is set in Empire Falls, Maine where the Whiting Family, owners of the once vibrant mills and the shirt factory have sold out to a multinational. Richard Russo is a wonderful storyteller who creates equally wonderful and believable characters. He also has a deep compassion for all his characters whether they are good, bad or indifferent beings. This reader found his portrayal of them rich, insightful and understanding. There is no one character in the book one could hate, not even the last Mrs Whiting who presides like a black widow spider over the declining fortunes of the town in which both mill and shirt factory have been closed down for these last twenty years.

The story evolves as each of the well-drawn characters interacts and rubs off one another. One does not even have to use the famous Coleridgean formula “willing suspension of disbelief” as the story moves along so naturally and as the characters are so believably real.

Some of the lesser characters add a more comedic subtext to the weightier themes of the novel expressed through the interactions of the main characters. These lesser characters make us laugh. For instance Bea, Janine’s mother who does not mind pointing out her daughter’s folly in reducing her weight and dumping Miles for that “banty little rooster” called Walt or even her own piles, and is quite comfortable sitting on her haemorrhoid cushion during the football game. She is not averse even to commenting on her daughter’s frozen nipples at the game. Bea, who is in her late sixties, is the owner of a pub and does not mind shifting kegs and all that goes with owning a bar, including dealing with obstreperous customers. Fr. Tom, the old priest with Alzheimer’s provides much light relief also and gives us a belly laugh or two. The funniest and most entertaining character is Miles’ father Max who also provides necessary comic relief in counter-balance to the heavier storyline. His son Miles, reflecting on Max’s character sums him up by saying that his father: “lived so comfortably within the confines of a two-word personal philosophy: so what?” (Empire Falls, Vintage, London, 2002, p. 204) Max has lost most of his teeth, pays absolutely no regard to his clothing and invariably has crumbs and pieces of food from his last meal stuck in his two or three day beard growth. He is a survivor, a total bohemian who loves his beer and for whom depression is a word he cannot even possibly understand. The reader loves to see him coming onto the stage if I’m permitted an obvious if awkward metaphor as he will enliven an otherwise seriously deep or philosophical mood.

However, the novel is also a serious one which deals with weightier themes like the meaning of life and indeed just living an authentic life no matter what we decide to do in or with it. Even the crueller and seemingly uncaringly hard character like the cop Jimmy Minty who was at school with Miles has his more serious and feeling side as the following small snippet of conversation indicates. The cop had found Miles sitting in his car outside the house where he used to live as a boy:

“What you were doing over there yesterday. I do the same thing sometimes.”
“What’s that?”
“You know. Just drive over, sit in the car and try to figure it all out.”
“All what out?”
Minty shrugged, “Life I guess. The way things turn out. I guess some people would think it pretty weird me ending up a cop.” (Ibid., p.93)


Indeed the above little scene sums up the theme or one of the themes, of this novel very nicely indeed. The theme I’m referring to is the struggle with life’s meaning, that is, making some sense of it all. In that sense this novel is almost Schopenhauerian in scope. I make this last reference as I have been recently discussing Schopenhauer’s philosophy in these posts and my own struggles in trying to come to grips with his thoughts.

The central character of the novel is Miles Roby who is a very reflective and philosophical character who is living through a mid-life crisis. He is 42 and is the manager of the Empire Grill, the local fast food joint. He regrets the fact that he had to come home from college, having completed only three of his four years there when his mother was dying. Circumstances did not allow him to resume his studies. Consequently, he feels a failure, and doubly so as his marriage is also on the rocks and his wife Janine is suing for divorce. He is living over the restaurant while the rival for his wife’s affections, Walt, is now living in his house with her. Added to that, he has a young fifteen year old daughter to think about.

Miles has a lot of thinking and soul-searching to do. He ponders his long dead beautiful and sensitive mother and retraces a marvellous, almost idyllic week, which he spent with her in Martha’s Vineyard when he was a little boy of eight or so. There he remembers his mother having met a Charley Maine who treated both his mum and him royally. He also remembers witnessing the fact that she had spent a night with the same Charley. And so Miles has much to do in putting the jig-saw of his life’s meaning together. Then there are his regular meetings, every so many months, with Mrs Francine Whiting, the owner of the restaurant for whom he’s working. She also owns anything that’s worth anything in the town, as well as having an intricate involvement in his life as a boy and as a young man, the import of which he is also struggling to unravel. Russo brings us right into this sensitive character’s mind and we begin to think and feel with him. However, we do get impatient with his inability to move and take decisions because he does do far too much navel gazing.

Interestingly Mrs Whiting is presented as a magisterial and sage character. She speaks extremely well, is extremely bright and has an aphoristic style which sums up life rather too easily and readily. Russo paints her as almost omniscient in the way she sums up people and life. She has all the answers, and certainly she has Miles wrapped around her little finger. In fact he is simultaneously in awe and afraid of her. This is another thing he will have to work out in his life.

Miles is also a good Roman Catholic with a strong religious bent he inherited from his late mother, and a far too moralistic streak for which his father chides him for on occasions, saying that his mother had ruined him. Miles goes to the Rectory, humorously referred to as the Rectum, most days during the week where he talks with his friend the young priest and where he is painting the church as a voluntary gesture. Russo writes well and realistically in this small subplot or parallel story. There is only one part of the outside of the Church which Miles won’t paint and that is the steeple as he is afraid of heights. Here again his father Max taunts him for his lack of physical courage. This is a lovely parallel story because it symbolically represents his fear of tackling Mrs Whiting and in unravelling her strange involvement in his life.

In summary this is a very good novel. On my scale I’d award it 8 out of 10, and I will now read any of Russo’s novels I come across in the future.

This book was also made into a TV mini-series featuring the great Paul Newman in his last acting role.  See the following link  Empire Falls.

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