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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.
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.
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.
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.
The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.
Yes, 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.
No – 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.
Yes, 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’.
No, 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.
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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…
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