GAN Quest: Empire Falls by Richard Russo

empire fallsGreat expectations…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Miles Roby nearly escaped from the small run-down town of Empire Falls once upon a time. He made it all the way to college, but came home before graduation to look after his terminally ill mother against her wishes. And while there, he made a pact with the devil in the shape of Mrs Francine Whiting, the owner of nearly everything and everyone in Empire Falls, that she would pay for his mother’s medical care if Miles would work off the debt by running the Empire Grill. Twenty years later, Miles still flips hamburgers for a living and Mrs Whiting still owns him.

The lovely wrought iron gates and fencing that had been brought all the way from New York to mark the perimeter of the estate were to her the walls of her prison, and every time she observed this, Honus reminded her that he held the keys to these gates and would let her out at any time. If she wanted to go back to Boston so damn bad, she should just do it. He said this knowing full well she wouldn’t, for it was the particular curse of the Whiting men that their wives remained loyal to them out of spite.

This is a heavily character-driven book and with a huge cast of characters to drive it. As Russo meanders leisurely through past and present, we gradually get to know many of the people who have touched Miles’ life, from close family to old school friends and foes. Russo achieves a remarkable level of depth across such a wide field of characters with a good dozen or more of them becoming intimately known to the reader, strengths and weaknesses all exposed. In this decaying town with little hope for the future, the people who’ve stayed are mostly the ones who lack the courage or impetus to have tried to make a more successful life elsewhere. Money is scarce, houses can’t find buyers, disappointment hovers over the whole town like a grey cloud. And the poverty and lack of opportunity give the Whiting family disproportionate power and influence. Not that that brings them joy – joy doesn’t really happen much in Empire Falls for anyone. Francine’s husband first abandoned her and then killed himself; and her daughter Cindy, crippled in a childhood accident, also has a history of suicide attempts.

To his surprise, she leaned over and kissed him on the forehead, a kiss so full of affection that it dispelled the awkwardness, even as it caused Miles’ heart to plummet, because all kisses are calibrated, and this one revealed the great chasm between affection and love.

Tick, Max and Miles (Danielle Panabaker, Paul Newman and Ed Harris) in the 2005 HBO mini-series of Empire Falls
Tick, Max and Miles (Danielle Panabaker, Paul Newman and Ed Harris) in the 2005 HBO mini-series of Empire Falls

All of which makes the book sound gloomy indeed, and it probably would be without the affectionate warmth Russo shows for his creations and the humour that runs through the book. I’ve objected to several books being labelled ‘Dickensian’ recently since the word seems to be being used as a synonym for ‘long’ this year – but this one does have aspects that made me think of Dickens. The characterisation of the more humorous characters is slightly overblown and caricatured. Miles’ reprobate father Max, (”He becomes a public nuisance every now and then when he tires of being a private one,”) is a ne’er-do-well with personal hygiene issues – never to be relied on and always ready to steal any money that Miles, or indeed anyone else, leaves lying around. Then there’s Walter Comeau, the ‘Silver Fox’, a sixty-year-old fitness fanatic who wears muscle shirts and croons Perry Como songs while flaunting his affair with Miles’ ex-wife. Mrs Whiting definitely has touches of Miss Havisham, using her wealth to manipulate and control the lives and loves of the people within her reach to get some kind of revenge for the tragedies in her own past. In fact, the whole plot is predicated on Miles’ great expectations that Mrs Whiting will leave him the Empire Grill in her will. But Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles puts in a cameo appearance too, as Max believes firmly that the Robys are related to the Robideaux – Mrs Whiting’s maiden name – and feels therefore that he’s due a share in the Whiting wealth. To be honest, sometimes these references appear fairly blatant but often don’t seem to lead anywhere in particular – as if they were thrown in as kind of literary in-jokes.

Apparently women all over the world wanted to have sex with Mick Jagger, or at least had wanted to once upon a time. Others had not found Max Roby repulsive. Miles couldn’t help admiring the ability of women to dismiss the evidence of their senses. If that’s what explained it. If it wasn’t simply that from time to time they were unaccountably drawn to the grotesque.

As well as the adult characters, Russo does a very fine job of creating some of the most believable literary teenagers I’ve come across. Tick, Miles’ daughter, is in an on-off relationship with bad-boy Zack Minty, but is self-aware enough to know that she’s really only tolerating him so that she can be part of the in-crowd. But she’s still repelled by his bullying behaviour towards the solitary and silent John, about whom no-one seems to know anything much. Tick’s relationship with her parents and reaction to their marriage break-up is also completely convincing – she’s old enough to understand what’s going on but still young enough to be totally judgemental and a little selfish about it all.

My God, he couldn’t help thinking, how terrible it is to be that age, to have emotions so near the surface that the slightest turbulence causes them to boil over. That, very simply, was what adulthood must be all about — acquiring the skill to bury things more deeply. Out of sight and, whenever possible, out of mind.

Richard Russo
Richard Russo

The quality of the writing is excellent throughout and Russo achieves a wonderful balance between a kind of nostalgic sadness and a somewhat wry humour, interspersed with some brilliantly funny set-pieces. I must admit, however, that for large parts of the book, I felt that it lacked any kind of narrative drive and was left entirely unsure where we were heading – if anywhere. There seemed to be lots of little mini-themes and some muted symbolism – such as the Catholic church being about to close, the senile priest, or the Whitings paying to have the river re-routed – that I felt weren’t fully developed. The book often felt like a loosely connected series of vignettes rather than a directed narrative. And sure enough, the shock ending so blatantly signalled in the blurb felt tacked on and seemed to come from nowhere; and, as a result, didn’t have nearly as much impact as I felt it ought to have done. It’s hard to discuss the ending without spoilers, so I won’t, except to say that it’s interesting to consider how the book reflects the anxieties of American society at the time of publication – 2001, just before the much more shocking real-life events of 9/11 fundamentally affected every aspect of American life and therefore literature, with an impact that is still resonating today and doubtless will continue to do so for many years yet. The concerns Russo addresses of industrial decay, class divisions and broken societies haven’t gone away, but they’ve been somewhat subsumed under the larger and more global questions being addressed in much subsequent literature.

Overall, the quality of the writing, the wonderfully compassionate characterisation and Russo’s ability to tread the tricky path between humour and melancholy outweigh any lack of depth in the narrative and make this a highly recommended read.

Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagYes, the decay of small towns as part of the industrial realignment of the end of the last century combined with the aspects of the ‘broken society’ are handled well. And the events of the ending reflect a phenomenon that, although it has also happened elsewhere, still seems to be somehow peculiarly American. So – achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

white_flagNo – the themes of class divisions and the effects on society of economic depression have been addressed on many occasions, so I don’t think this can be classed as innovative or original. So not achieved.

Must be superbly written.

us flagYes, while the prose isn’t particularly poetic or even distinctly ‘literary’, it is written in a way that keeps the reader engrossed and involved, and I can’t think of many other books where the characters come so vividly and realistically to life – achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagNo, I don’t think Russo is even attempting to achieve this impossible criterion – a wise decision, but one that means I must say – not achieved.

* * * * * * * * *

With 5 stars but only 3 GAN flags, I hereby declare this book to be A Great Novel, but neither The Great American Novel nor even A Great American Novel. But am I right? Over to you…

* * * * * * * * *

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

43 thoughts on “GAN Quest: Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  1. FictionFan – It may not be The Great American Novel, but it sounds like a terrific exploration of human interaction. And I always respect an author who can depict characters in solid, thoughtful depth without getting overblown about it.


    • Yes, a great book, Margot, with some really strong characterisation. And really, being a great book is probably more important than being a Great American Novel…


  2. I do hope you find a book to match all the criteria one day! But I do imagine it will be quite deadly hard.

    Ooo, it sounds like a very interesting read! It was an awesome review, and I’m interested. The beginning, especially, was of interest. But I can see where you say it’s more of a collection of stories.

    What’s the shocking ending? (If the blurb lets on to it, it can’t be that secret!)


    • Impossible, I suspect – but it’s fun looking…

      Ooh, an awesome! *proud face* Yes, it’s a great book but not Professorish, I feel. No apes. Or potatoes.

      Well…I shouldn’t really tell you but…well…Miles hires a passing stranger to work in the Grill, and he kills Mrs Whiting, slices her up and serves her up as hamburgers…I think his name was Ruber…


      • Oh it is not! I’d die.

        Well, Mr. Mark lost all his potatoes. He’s on his way to Ares 4 drop sight, I think. I’m rooting for him. I love how he swears… *laughs and hides*

        You know, I actually believed that for a minute! I’m such a dull beast. Now tell the truth, Aravis!


        • *laughing* Poor C-W-W! This blog is just fraught with peril for you…

          Gosh, you really are speeding through it – isn’t that getting quite close to the end? (I kinda loved how he swears too… *blushes and hides* )

          Haha! It would have been a better ending I think! No, I can’t tell you, I fear – you’ll just have to read it. It’s only 500 pages…


          • Peril makes the hero a hero!

            Yes, I am! And the funny thing is, I’d have to be a million times smarter to even come close to ripping it. But all’s good. It doesn’t need ripped. (Really? *laughs* I laugh all the time. I just can’t help it.)

            500 pages?! Too bad good books–like the Martian and A Princess of Mars–aren’t that long. You should start a “cheat” page or something. Just for me.


            • Very profound, and so true!

              Oh I bet you could rip it if you really tried! (The idea of a permanently-chuckling Professor makes me chuckle!)

              You’re complaining these books aren’t long enough?? At least A Princess has millions of sequels though. But I always tell you how they end – is it my fault if you never believe me?


            • No! (*bows* And I’m not sure why either.)

              Yes, I am! That’s true. I just got Artemis Fowl, you know. Well, how come, I’m always in the endings? You wouldn’t lie to the professor, would you?


            • (Why what?)

              Artemis Fowl? Another one I haven’t read (and I suspect never will…). I shall await your opinion with eager anticipation…

              I don’t know – I suspect I’ve been transported to a parallel universe where all stories end up being about the Professor. It’s very worrying – especially since it means the next time I read P&P he’ll probably be in it too…perhaps at the ball…or perhaps he’ll challenge Darby to a duel over Lizzie…


            • Don’t ask the professor why he does professorish things!

              *laughing* Well… I’m rather sure you’d hate it–and I haven’t even read it yet!

              Oh, that’s super cool! I don’t think Lizzy would have ever gotten angry with me. I would have explained to her that I can’t dance because I’ve got two left feet. That would have fetched her. She would have never held a grudge about not getting a dance.


            • Then who should I ask?

              I reckon I would definitely hate it! Fairies?? Baffled as to why the Professor objects to HP but wants to read AF?

              Is the Professor trying to make FF jealous of Lizzie?? I don’t think she’d have been nearly as sweet as you make out. She didn’t take too well to Darby refusing to dance, did she? I wonder what she’d think of the Professorial multi-winking technique, though… *hums thoughtfully*


            • Mic, of course.

              Really? I didn’t know about that. Why do you think I’m opposed to the HP?

              I actually don’t wink! Promise! *does the cross heart thingy twice* Lizzio did need slapped, I agree. But professor’s don’t slap, they punch. Maybe she needed a Glaswegian kiss. What are you humming?


            • Ah, of course!

              I’m only going by the blurb. I have no idea – they seem like such Professorish books to me. I’d have thought you’d have loved them. At first I thought it must be because they were about wizards and magic and stuff, but you read plenty of other fantasy so it can’t be that…

              *laughing* OK I’ll stop accusing you of it then. Tut! You’ll never get to be Darby with an attitude like that, sir! I don’t know – it’s usually kinda hard to tell…


            • And Mr. Magi’s a type of wizard. You see, FEF, I’m surprised adults got through the first HP book! It’s a wonder and a few for sure. *wonders and wonders*

              Oh I bet you won’t! I don’t want to be Darby. Don’t you think the professor is better? *laughs* That’s how it is with my humming too.


            • Well, I wonder too – but I think I may have to give up wondering or my head may explode.

              Hmm…the Professor probably would be better if only he was willing to dance the cotillion…. Can you hum and play the clarinet and breathe at the same time?


            • Don’t let it explode! It’s far too wonderful. You’ll know eventually. Patience is a professorish virtue.

              Well, breathing and playing the clarinet, yes. And humming…no!


  3. Wonderful review! This came at a good time. I’m looking for a new read and this sounds like it’s a good fit for me. I love your criteria for the GAN. That is a hard quest indeed. To achieve an original theme in itself is difficult, especially since class division is so integrated in the modern American experience.


    • Thank you! 🙂 I’d certainly recommend this one – one of those books where you become completely involved with the characters and care about what happens to them. Yes, I doubt any book will meet all the criteria – but I’m having fun looking for one, and getting more familiar with US literature along the way…which is probably the real point of the quest…


    • Thanks, Ryan! Yes, it is a great book even if it isn’t quite The Great American Novel. I doubt any book will meet all the criteria, but I’m having fun trying to find one… 🙂


    • Thanks, Jilanne! 🙂 Yes, I think you’d probably enjoy this one so move it up!! (Phew! I’m so relieved I’ve finally found one you like the sound of… 😉 )


  4. This sounds like a great read and you’ve got me thinking about your criteria, which are intriguing! Two I would nominate are Underworld by Don DeLillo and The Time of Our Singing by Richard Power.


    • The last criterion is pretty much impossible – I keep thinking that I’ll change it to something a bit more achievable but have never been able to decide quite what exactly. Thanks for the recommendations – I’ve never heard of either of those (my ignorance of American literature being the spur that started this quest) but from the blurb they both look like real contenders. Definitely two to be added to my list! The plan is for me to read one a month or so – even if I never find a GAN I’ll have fun looking… 🙂


  5. Enjoyed your review – more than I would the book, I suspect. I think your criteria are going to prove impossible, largely because America is such a varied and diffuse society, but this one does seem to have “post industrial small town” sewn up.


    • Yes, I think the criteria are impossible too. When I do an update post, I’ll really have to think about rewording that last one. But I must say I’ve thoroughly enjoyed most of the ones I’ve read so far, whether they’re GANs or not.

      On a different subject, did you once tell me you enjoyed watching Vin Diesel films? Or did I imagine that?


      • Up to a point, Lord Copper. I like the Riddick films, and I enjoyed Triple X, but I haven’t seen anything else that I can remember. I have a rather shamefaced fondness for American action films – some people watch soaps, me…….


  6. When I looked at the heading I was sure this wouldn’t be for me. I started reading your review and I’d be tempted to read it for the characterisation alone. I love the quotes you chose but I’m not a fan of a limp narrative…. hmm.. great review as always!


  7. I like your GAN project, FictionFan, and I really liked this book. It’s my favorite Russo by far, and I enjoyed the miniseries/movie as well. I’m picky about more contemporary novels, and the writing and the characters impressed me in this one, which I don’t say too often.


    • It’s the only one of his that I’ve read, but from looking at the blurbs and reviews of his other stuff I suspect it’s the one I’d like best too. I thought the characterisation was brilliant – totally believable and affectionately done. Glad to hear the miniseries is good – I was toying with getting a copy, if only to see Paul Newman in his final role, but was scared in case it wasn’t up to much.


  8. I love this book. Indeed I love Russo’s novels – full stop. This was the first of his books that I read after it won the Pulitzer but I have gone on to read his other works and I think he is one of the great unsung masters and certainly not valued in the UK in the way that he should be. He may be writing about US locations but the human situations and emotions that he explores are universal. Given how much you’ve enjoyed this do try ‘Bridge of Sighs’


    • I was stunned at how few reviews the book had on Amazon UK. It’s odd how some writers take off on both sides of the Atlantic while others just don’t seem to cross over. I agree with you that he’s certainly not parochially American in any way – the issues he was discussing and the characters themselves could have been set anywhere without too much needing to change. Oh dear – ‘Bridge of Sighs’ does look good…


  9. You’ve wholly captured this wonderful work of American literary fiction, truly. It’s such a rich book, and the reasons why are fully captured in this review.

    I will say that perhaps the book does a bit better on Criterion the Third if, like most Americans (and this correspondent), one hasn’t read much Dickens and the like. Also, I think the uncommon love story at the emotional center of the story for me–the ebb and flow and contradictory eddys that swirl inside Max about his ex and more–should count on that criterion. The book’s not just about class and economic depression and such, as you note in the earlier portions of the review (before the GAN scorecard section). I also think it does a bit better on the elusive Criterion the Fifth, but only if one counts the America that’s never actually on stage, but still present as a kind of ghostly apparition throughout, i.e. the comparatively affluent majority of the country. For an American to read this story is to have the image of the other America — the affluent one — resting on one’s shoulder even if never on screen. And for many, the experience of reading this book can be an indictment of the nation, not unlike The Grapes of Wrath. What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that the Fifth Criterion must be seen as one that can be satisfied in a great story, even if all Americans aren’t in the cast or on the stage, if they’re so clearly in the background and between the lines. I felt this sort of thing very much in Empire Falls.

    Finally, about the ending. I, too, felt the very same reaction you describe so well. And when I went back and read the book a few years later, it was gone; it all seemed so much more organic than the first time I read it. This was a complete surprise to me, so much so I amended my Amazon review. I’m not saying you’re wrong, or that I was first time around, I’m just sayin’.



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