Thomas Kelly uses the construction of the Empire State Building in New York as a symbol of the grandiose ascent of a city and nation on the move and of the corruption that is the base of that upward thrust. Empire Rising, however, is also a love story about two Irish immigrants striving to escape their pasts. Michael Briody, who works as a riveter on the building, has come to America to continue his work as an assassin for the Irish Republican Army. Grace Masterson, who is the mistress of Johnny Farrell, the bag man for Mayor Jimmy Walker, is an untaught but skilled artist who falls for Briody and paints him at work on the building. As the story unwinds and the building rises, Kelly exposes the underside of New York, its Tammany Hall politicians, its corrupt judges and police, the battle for supremacy between the Irish and Italian gangsters, and the plight of the city's destitute.
Jimmy Walker is not the only historical figure in the novel, which includes Babe Ruth, Primo Carnera, Al Smith, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who is the mastermind behind the declining fortunes of the Tammany Hall crowd. Egan, Roosevelt's minion, accumulates incriminating information about Farrell and Judge Crater; Farrell, realizing that the Mafia is assuming control of New York crime, knows his days are numbered; and Tough Tommy Touhey fakes his death to avoid prosecution and/or death at the hands of the Italians. Briody, who has come to identify with the American Dream, cannot carry out an assassination and is finally led to his death by a close friend who elevates Irish Republicanism over friendship. Masterson escapes from Farrell, thanks to Briody and Egan, but will be used by Egan to weaken Tammany Hall. The bittersweet ending has Masterson vowing to return to the Empire State Building, identified in her mind with her painting of Briody.