The life of a small southern-central Maine town is memorably laid bare in Russo’s splendid fifth novel—every bit as reader-friendly and satisfying as its predecessors (Straight Man, 1997, etc.).
Not that Russo’s trademark wry humor isn’t everywhere present, especially in protagonist Miles Roby’s relations, friends, neighbors, and antagonists. Miles, generally considered “the nicest, saddest man in all of Empire Falls,” manages the Empire Grill for widowed plutocrat Francine Whiting (who may/may not bequeath it to him). He’s barely scraping by in an economically challenged community that was once the thriving site of the Whitings’ logging and textile mill “empire.” And he’s watching his teenaged daughter Christina (“Tick”) painstakingly mature, while also laboring to keep emotional distance from a host of brilliantly sketched seriocomic characters. These latter include Miles’s intemperate “soon-to-be-ex-wife” Janine and her aging fiancé, the annoyingly hearty “Silver Fox” Walt Comeau; Miles’s old high-school friend and enemy, hard-nosed cop Jimmy Minty; his one-armed brother (and reputed marijuana grower) David; and especially his widowed father Max, a senile delinquent who’s eternally on the make and cadging “loans” (mostly from Miles). Russo’s genius for loosely episodic storytelling hasn’t faded, but here it’s expertly yoked to several smartly paced parallel plots, whose origins and ramifications are spelled out in extended italicized flashbacks (as well as in a moving explanatory epilogue)—and focus in turn on the unhappy marriage and early death of Miles’s beautiful mother Grace, the slow-burning fuse that is Tick’s nerdy classmate John Voss (whose loneliness triggers the story’s heart-tugging climax), and the skeletons carefully hidden in the Whiting mansion’s many closets.
A little like Jon Hassler’s engaging Minnesota fiction and Thomas Williams’s New Hampshire–Gothic Whipple’s Castle—and very much the crowning achievement of Russo’s remarkable career.