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