Richard Russo has made an impressive reputation in the literary world as an astute observer of small town life, most notably in the fictional upstate town of North Bath, New York, in Nobody’s Fool (1993). In Empire Falls, his fifth published novel, Russo adds yet another volume on small town life to what might be called his “rust belt” saga—a careful examination of the colorful people who manage to survive in the old industrial states. Though it does provide the reader with Russo’s trademark small-town eccentrics, Empire Falls also deals with much larger themes that cut across the entire spectrum of society, from the amusing antics of an itinerant house painter named Max Roby to a landed family that owns half of the town—the Whitings. Weighing in at just under five hundred pages, Empire Falls is much longer than the average book of fiction, and in the hands of a less-talented writer, a novel of such proportions could easily lose its sense of focus. Given his penchant for peopling his fictional towns with memorable “nobodies,” Russo might well have dwelled on characters at the expense of plot. What enables Russo’s work to function as a cohesive whole is its strict sense of organization.
“Power and control,” to quote Francine Whiting, the manipulative matriarch of the town’s wealthiest family, is no less important to Russo’s design than it is to his cold-hearted character. What allows Russo’s novel to function is the way he structures his material. Empire Falls begins with a prologue, an italicized introduction that provides the reader with a brief exposition of the past as it relates to the novel’s central characters: C. B. Whiting’s ludicrous efforts to build his Mexican hacienda in the chilly Maine factory town of Empire Falls, and how that decision leads him to alter the river’s direction and to wed Francine Robideaux, from whose family he purchases the land that makes it possible. The novel proper, which centers on Miles Roby and his interaction with the Whiting family, is revealed through four numbered parts and concludes with an epilogue. Each of the four major sections unfolds in the present, builds up to a revelation about a character or an event, and then shifts back to the past in italicized text for the final chapter in that section. Thus, part 1 finds the penultimate chapter concluding with Max Roby, Miles’s father, urinating on C. B. Whiting’s grave. It is only in the italicized chapter that follows, with its shift to the past, that the reader learns that Max was cuckolded by the late heir to the Whiting fortune. In that revelation lies the crux of the entire novel—the single event that motivates the main characters in the plot. C. B. Whiting, in the tradition of the Whiting males, having tired of his cold wife, Francine, strikes up an affair with Grace Roby on Martha’s Vineyard. This pattern of revelation in the present followed by exposition continues throughout the novel, and it is this cyclical approach that enables Russo to organize his material so well.
What it also suggests—and this is borne out by the book’s contents—is that the characters themselves are compelled to follow a repeated pattern, usually against their own intentions. This recurring theme is most clearly articulated by Francine Whiting: “Lives are rivers. We imagine we can direct their paths, though in the end there’s but one destination, and we end up being true to ourselves only because we have no choice.” Those characters who accept this basic truth, who allow themselves to be carried along by the flow of life, tend to be less tormented than those who do not. Miles, the central character in Russo’s tale, is the prime example. Having abandoned college in his final semester some twenty years earlier, he assumes the management of the Empire Grill as his mother, Grace, sickens and dies from...
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