“Empire Falls” — a Novel of Community and Personal Redemption

Empire Falls — a Novel of Community and Personal Redemption

 Richard Russo’s brilliant 2001 novel, Empire Falls, won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize and has become a classic of American late-twentieth-century fiction.  The story takes place in the fictional, down-on-its-luck mill town of Empire Falls in southwestern Maine.  After over a century of prosperity from its paper and textile mills, the town has fallen on hard times with the closure of both the mills and of a large shirt factory, all owned by the Whiting family for many generations.

Most of the events of the novel take place during a two-month period in the mid-1990’s, when cell phones were still virtually unknown and only a few digital pioneers ventured onto the Internet, mostly for email.  The main venue is the Empire Grill, a small restaurant-diner in the heart of town, managed by 42-year-old Empire Falls native, Miles Rob.  Most commercial properties in Empire Falls are still owned by the Whiting family and the diner is no exception.  Miles started working in the diner right out of college after being called home to tend to his critically ill mother.  To his own dismay, he has stayed on at the diner for over twenty years after his mother’s death, during which time he has married, bought a house, and fathered a daughter.  He holds onto the promise that Francine Whiting, the last of the family dynasty, will one day give him ownership of the diner, after which he fantasizes selling it and moving away with his teenaged daughter.

The Empire Grill is a regular gathering place for many of the characters in the novel.  Miles’ younger brother Dave is the principal cook.  Dave’s girlfriend Charlene is the principal waitress who has worked at the Empire Grill since Miles had a crush on her in high school.  His daughter Tick helps with bussing tables and dishwashing after school.  And his soon-to-be ex-wife, Janine, has also lent a hand when needed.  The main reporter for the small local newspaper, Horace Weymouth, is a daily customer, as is Walt Comeau, the self-proclaimed “Silver Fox”, owner of the only health club in town; Walt is also the current lover and prospective husband of Janine.  Another regular customer and sometimes clean-up worker is the zany, irresponsible, alcoholic father of Miles and Dave, Max Rob.

As diner manager, Miles presides over this eclectic, sometimes unruly bunch.  The cheapskate Silver Fox occupies a seat for hours on end with only his unlimited coffee to show for it.  He regularly strips down to his muscle shirt to display his impressive late-middle-aged physique, and often challenges the mild-mannered Miles to arm wrestling.  Brother Dave has just recently recovered from a near-fatal, alcohol-induced car accident and has virtually lost use of one arm and hand.  Horace Weymouth is a wise old curmudgeon who brandishes a large ugly cyst over one eye that he refuses to have treated.

“Empire Falls” is often a darkly comic novel.  Much of the darkness stems from the dire economic straits of the town, largely the result of the self-aggrandizing business policies of the Whiting family.  Humor is what keeps Miles and Dave sane in the midst of the townspeople’s unfounded belief that the mills will one day reopen, and that the town will return to its former prosperity.  The main story of the novel is bookended by a Prolog and Epilog, containing the multi-generational tale of the Whiting family in Empire Falls.  The fate of that family intertwines in surprising and complex ways with that of the Rob family.  Miles’ growing realization of that connection inspires much of the plot, leading to a series of epiphany realizations that clarify his destiny.

Miles is a devout Catholic, as his mother had been, and his primary friendship is with the radical-leaning Father Mark.  Father Mark has been sent to St. Catherine’s, a backwater parish in an economically depressed town as punishment for having performed an act of conscience in slightly damaging a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine bearing nuclear-tipped missiles.  (The Catholic priest Berrigan brothers had actually performed numerous such acts of anti-war civil disobedience during that time).  Father Mark is technically the assistant pastor, but the pastor-in-name, Father Tom, is far enough gone in his Alzheimer’s dementia that Father Mark has to be completely in charge — another dimension of the hierarchy’s punishment of Father Mark for his radical civil disobedience.

Miles is a daily communicant and also on the Board of the church.  He has volunteered to paint the church for free as a cost-savings for the cash-strapped parish.  His frequent conversations with Father Mark in the rectory have the effect of making his painting work more sporadic.  In addition, Miles has become afraid of heights and dreads the prospect of climbing so high to paint the church steeple.  Fr. Mark relishes Miles’ intelligent, sensitive company and uses him to try out his sermon themes.

In conversation with Father Mark, Miles shares that he was not always afraid of heights.  In fact, he had a childhood reputation as a fearless climber of trees, telephone poles, and rooftops, often scaring his mother.  But at some unrecognized point, a nagging fear had crept in, paralyzing Miles when he most needed to be courageous and daring.  In the same way, Miles had always been a serious student, and had used his three-and-a-half years at a small Catholic college in Portsmouth to begin building a sense of himself as a scholar and man of letters.  But his mother’s illness broke that spell of academic advancement, and Miles’ fear of heights is symptomatic of his stuckness, and failure to make it into even the bottom rungs of the middle class.

Miles is regularly called in by Mrs. Whiting for unsolicited advice on how to run the restaurant, and also how to keep order in the town.  He has served on the School Board and Mrs. Whiting now wants him to run for Mayor (a low-paid, high-responsibility job that Miles wisely wants nothing to do with.)  Miles is one of the few people in Empire Falls who can speak his mind with Mrs. Whiting, but mostly to no avail.  He deeply resents her calculating control of all commercial enterprises in town, yet can’t find an effective way to skirt her authority.  He also doesn’t understand why Mrs. Whiting always seems to have it in for him, until one day, he sees an old photo in the town newspaper that includes his mother, Grace, and Charles Whiting, Francine’s deceased husband.  Miles has his first epiphany with the recognition of Charles Whiting as the man that his mother had a brief affair with while the 10-year-old Miles travelled with Grace to the exotic Martha’s Vineyard.  Miles slowly realizes that Francine Whiting has been punishing both his deceased mother and himself all these years for her own husband’s adultery.

Most of the events in “Empire Falls” take place within a two-month period beginning in early September.  The last 100 pages of this 400-page book bring the many subplots to a rip-roaring climax that makes it hard to put the book down.  Miles goes through a series of deep, personal transformations as he and his brother decide to join forces with Miles’ ex-mother-in-law to create a new, more robust restaurant.  In one unforgettable day, he decisively arm wrestles the Silver Fox down (breaking his opponent’s arm in the process), confronts Mrs. Whiting, and attacks an off-duty police officer who is guarding her.  He is beaten and arrested and finds himself barely conscious in a hospital bed, writhing in pain.  On the following day, his daughter is almost shot in a crazed, fatal rampage by a deeply disturbed fellow student.  He manages to leave his hospital bed to rescue his daughter and pirate her away to Martha’s Vineyard.

In Martha’s Vineyard, Miles and his daughter find winter refuge in an unused summer home that two old college friends have let him use.  His daughter slowly recovers from the trauma of the school massacre, and Miles has time to do some deeper soul-searching.  He spends his days in a public library while his daughter is in school.  There he re-connects with the sense of self he had in college:  as a scholar and writer.  He experiences a deep bitterness at having missed the opportunity to fulfill this higher calling.  He decides to revisit the cottage where he and his mother had lived while she was having her romantic affair with Charles Whiting thirty years previous.  There, on a cold, foggy afternoon, the ghost of Charles Whiting appears to him and engages him in conversation.  Miles expresses his anger at Whiting for having abandoned his mother, Grace, after the affair.  Whiting tells Miles that he very much wanted to go off with the beautiful, soulful Grace, but that Grace was not willing to abandon her son.

Just previous to this, Miles had learned from his brother that Francine Whiting had drowned in a major flood that swept through her property in Empire Falls.  Of a sudden, the Whiting family, his lifelong nemesis, seems much more human, even pathetic in its own frustrated happiness. Miles sees the truth of this and, after long and heartfelt crying (“the kind of crying that does some good”), is able to relax his anger and blame.  He realizes that his lifelong bitterness towards the Whitings had kept him in a victim’s stance that made it impossible for him to fully grow up, to finally leave behind the fears and doubts of childhood. He falls into a profound sleep and awakes to a new reality:

“He awoke a man, with no idea how long he’d slept.”

“Empire Falls” is a rich, rollicking read filled with human passion, love, devotion, betrayal and ultimately, redemption.  After his final epiphany on Martha’s Vineyard, Miles is ready to return to Empire Falls, a wiser, saner man, ready to offer his full manhood to his ongoing destiny in his hometown.

John Bayerl, 8/7/17

“Let go, let God”

[I prepared this piece as the lead sharing for our weekly, parents Alanon group last night. My wife Andrea and I have been active members of the Alanon fellowship for seven years.]

“Let go, let God”

Step 6 of the Twelve Steps says: “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”

I am still working Step 6.  I did conscious work for many months on Steps 4 and 5 with an Alanon sponsor.  In Step 4, I took the plunge to do a thorough self-examination.  As I began that process, my sponsor asked me to first write out a list of my best qualities.  This eased entry into the more difficult work of acknowledging and admitting my faults to “God, myself, and to another human being.”  My sponsor also helped me to see that there was an interesting relationship between my virtues and my faults; that many of my faults were distorted versions of my virtues.   Step 5 invites us to go a level deeper to determine “the exact nature of our wrongs.”  This took me to a level of questioning some of my fundamental beliefs about the nature of Reality.  The “nature of Reality” is my current working understanding of God.

I am learning that working Step 6 requires prayer.  My inner work sometimes suffers from an over-reliance on my self-will.  Self-will works fine in the domain of most self-help programs. But Alanon is more than another self-help program.  The prayer “Let go, let God” allows me to release my self-will and trust in the benevolent unfolding of a Higher Power.

My positive will serves me very well in many aspects of my life.  In fact, my positive self-will got me to Alanon and to a place of serious inner work.   It gets me out of bed in the morning and enables me to make commitments to projects and goals that are important to me.  But I discovered that I cannot simply will serenity, peace, or happiness.  The entire efficacy of the Twelve Steps is based on a personal experience of our Higher Power, and that requires me to loosen the reins of “what I want”.  Another version of the prayer for me is:  “not my will but Yours be done”.

To become “entirely ready” to turn my inner doubts and fears over to a Higher Power, I had to first use my conscious good will to honestly and fearlessly face myself as I am.  For me, this requires a stripping down from pretense and from an identity built on outward accomplishments.

One of the beliefs that I unearthed in Steps 4 and 5 had to do with my motivation for one of the most important undertakings of my life:  the adoption of two older Brazilian street kids:  “at risk” kids par excellence.  These two grown children are now my Alanon “qualifiers”.

Along with a genuine desire to expand our loving home, and a genuine desire to come to the aid of “throw away” children, I discovered a self-righteous pride for being such an exemplary person.  When our kids acted out with drugs and alcohol, this self-righteous pride took a serious hit.  I was doubting myself and slipping into depression.  Part of the reason was that I could no longer proudly claim my great valor and compassion for the adoption.  Drilling down into the “exact nature” of my depression revealed how I had built a sense of self based on the performance of good deeds.  When my good deed went awry, my sense of self took a big hit.

This led me into an inquiry into the truth-value of my ruling belief that my self-worth required an ongoing performance of good deeds.  Is this what reality is requiring for me to feel like a whole, healthy person?  I could easily see the fallacy in this belief, yet I felt it was so deep in me that letting it go would mean the loss of everything worthwhile in my being.

I could certainly see that others of my family and friends were not so driven by the need to perform good deeds.  And I admired and loved many of them.  I certainly didn’t require others to be performing good deeds in order for me to accept, trust, and value their essential worth.  “Let go, let God” became an important prayer for me in releasing the tyranny of my self-imposed requirement that I must always do good deeds to prove my value and worth.

So Step 6 is steering me to fundamentally challenge this false belief that my self-worth requires ongoing self-sacrifice.  I can accept the mission that I signed up for with the adoption, without relegating my life to ongoing strife and hopeless disappointment.  Once I articulated this, I sensed other possibilities.  And yet, with the continued acting out of a qualifier, I would regularly return to my false belief.

I’m learning that in prayer, I can acknowledge my own powerlessness.  Using self-will alone, I’ve not been able to make the leap to a new personal paradigm.  “Let go, let God” and the serenity prayer are helping me to let go of responsibility for all the many events in life that I have no control of, especially the choices and behaviors of my adult children.  These prayers offer me inner peace and positive self-esteem even when my wayward adult-children act out once again.

The prayer “Let go, let God” points me to a place where I can feel myself as real, whole and loving, without having to prove it to myself or anyone else.  With faith and trust in my Higher Power and my own Higher Self, I can become “entirely ready” for the God of my understanding to liberate my spirit.