Book review: Empire Falls, by Richard Russo

originally posted elsewhere: June 3, 2004

tl;dr: Empires fall, but should you stay to be buried in rubble?...

For those who, like myself, left a small city much like the fictional Empire Falls, Maine, to seek a better life in a larger metropolitan area, and also to escape from the small-town thinking that limits human potential, Richard Russo's Empire Falls presents an interesting counter study: what is life like, today, in the old hometown?

The main strengths of Empire Falls lie in its character portraits (Miles' father Max in particular has an interesting outlook on life), and the description of the social structure of a small American city in decline. Russo does an excellent job showing how people's place within the social structure gets established and enforced, and how people often get trapped by it, even though it is often within their power to improve their lot in life (this is especially true for Miles, who is submissive to a fault). It is also interesting to see how deep, dark secrets get withheld from people who interact with each other continually. Russo also presents some challenging questions about organized religion: what is the morality of a senile, verbally abusive priest, a liberal homosexual priest, and a church that councils people to sacrifice their happiness so that they can suffer under the hands of others? These questions don't get answered, but the situations described will stimulate thought in the minds of readers.

A beige book cover divided into thirds, with the author's name on top and the title and a blurb on the bottom, in the middle of which is an image of a man and a woman facing each other over a table in a diner

I have a few quibbles about the storyline, the main one being that it is hard to believe that Miles would not have come the realize the full identity of C.B. years before the story takes place. Russo seems to have noted this objection, and pages later spends a paragraph trying to explain this. Second, it is hard to figure out just how big a city Empire Falls is supposed to be. The streets are constantly described as being nearly devoid of pedestrians, and the main characters are always running into each other, yet the city supports a Sunday edition of the local newspaper, even though there is a healthier college town seven miles away. Finally, after the plot lopes along at a leisurely pace, the events of the ending come in rapid-fire succession, and one of the key events is directly lifted (and transported) from the headlines of the day. Russo uses this event for good dramatic purposes, but it may very well prevent Empire Falls from becoming a classic novel, just as a story from the Sixties that transparently copied the Kent State shootings (but wasn't about Kent State) would today be viewed as dated.

All in all, I did not appreciate Empire Falls to the same degree as many other reviewers, and I am somewhat surprised it received the 2002 Pulitzer Prize, as I don't think it will be a terribly memorable book for me. The structure of the story is very straightforward (realistic third-party descriptions of scenes, interspersed with flashbacks), and the symbolism and writing is none too subtle (as is proven by the title), so it doesn't break any new ground in literature. It's a better than average read, and does have its moments, but I don't believe it's a classic piece of literature or the new Great American Novel.