Empire Falls

February 21, 2012

I have a confession to make: I have loved every Richard Russo book that I have ever read. I haven’t read them all, of course, but I have read enough of them for the threads of different stories to have begun weaving themselves together into a single woven mass. The marital woes (or was it health woes? or job woes?) of one character are entangled with those of half a dozen others. Even though each book reads like a perfectly constructed jigsaw puzzle of interlocking parts, each of which is specially crafted for the story at hand, if I merely stop to reflect for a moment on any two Russo books, I will find myself confused about which story goes where.

This may explain my enduring appreciation of Russo. His stories are reliably familiar, but they are so well-told, and they work themselves out in patterns that are so fresh and appealing, that they simply never grow old. If I was a religious person — I’m not, but after reading Empire Falls I almost feel like a lapsed Catholic — if I was a religious person, this is the same goal I might hope to achieve in my relationship with God. I would hope that God, despite instantly recognizing me as a miserable sinner, steeped in mundane greed and jealousy, and pathetically unable to love my neighbors in any of the ways that they deserve,  would still find me entertaining and worthy of His special attention, and ultimately, His redemption.Empire Falls and its inhabitants are in dire need of redemption. The mills and most of the businesses closed down years ago. The remaining residents are trapped financially, physically, and emotionally. They can’t afford to stay and they lack the skills and fortitude to leave. No one understands this better than the main character, Miles Roby, a kindhearted, frustrated intellectual who was born in Empire Falls, left once upon a time to attend college, and then quit part way through in order to return home, care for his dying mother, and be close to (“pursue” is too strong a word) the woman he has loved since high school. Sadly, his dreams are frustrated and his noble sacrifices go unrewarded. His mother dies, but not before she screams from her deathbed for him to leave town, go back to college, and never return. His heart throb marries one “wrong” guy after another, and while she now spends her working days at the Empire Grill standing only a few feet from Miles, she stays frustratingly out of reach. By the time Miles finally conceives of a dream life for himself in Martha’s Vineyard, he finds himself caught in the same web of relationships and commitments that holds the entire town in place.

The book walks Miles back and forth in time, and also back and forth between the Empire Grill and the local Catholic church. The church is such a prominent landmark in the story that I became certain that something awful (or humorous) would happen to Miles and his dad while they painted the steeple. I was wrong about the steeple, but not about the importance of paying attention to the religious homilies that Russo offers. This reflection on Jesus’s disciples seems especially apt: “what a relief it must have been when the stone was rolled across the entrance to the tomb, sealing everything shut so they could go back to being fishermen, which they knew how to do, rather than fishers of men, which they didn’t.”

Miles is surrounded by demons — a harpy ex-wife, her omnipresent irritating husband, a shiftless father, the bullying cop who lives next door, the post-suicidal and ultra-clingy cripple who still loves him, the cripple’s puppet master mother, to name just a few — but dealing with them is a task that he knows how to do. While he wishes they were not constantly at his throat, it is a relief of sorts for him to wake up each day and confront them. They are familiar. The alternative, letting go and striking out on a new path, doing what he doesn’t know how to do, is vastly more frightening. Fear of the unknown is what keeps us in Empire Falls.

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