In Empire Falls Russo once again writes about small town America. It is 2002, and the shirt factory has moved production to Mexico. There is unemployment and deprivation. It’s Trumpsville really.
The book centres round a small diner in Empire Falls. It focuses on the life of Miles, the manager. But Russo is an omniscient narrator. He steps into the shoes of other characters, and tells different parts of the story from their point of view.
At first it seemed like Russo had taken the characters from Nobody’s Fool and Everybody’s Fool and transposed them into this novel. A shiftless working class labourer who refused to take responsibility for anything was the “hero” of the first two books. Here he is the hero’s father. There is a policeman and an estranged wife in those books too. But the way Russo develops these characters is new and different here.
Mrs Whiting, the wife of the deceased owner of the shirt factory is one of the few important characters whose thoughts are hidden from us. She owns most of the town. This allows her to exercise control in a variety of ways that might make her appear truly evil. So it is fitting that she stands apart.
Miles, the protagonist and hero is a working man who manages a cafe for her. His wife has left him for a gym instructor. His daughter is angry and won’t speak to her mother. A series of flashbacks reveal episodes from his own mother’s past which have consequences for him and all his family. (It would spoil the plot to explain more about these.)
The villains are ordinary people too, corrupt policemen and bullying teachers, pupils who flaunt authority and treat others cruelly.
For example the daughter’s art teacher is apathetic and ineffectual. She shows no interest in pupils’ learning, and has favourites. There is mileage here in the portrayal of the school, and we see real poverty and deprivation. There is bullying in class, and in the town itself domestic violence and abuse. Miles has to provide moral guidance to his daughter in this context. He is a catholic, painting the church steeple, and supporting the young priest, who is struggling to manage a wayward, senile older colleague.
I hope that gives you a sense of the variety of interesting characters in this book. Russo has a fantastic imagination. His characters are flawed. They are weak, selfish, impulsive and vengeful. But they are truly human. They make mistakes, they misunderstand things, they lay the blame for their problems at the feet of others. But whilst they see other inhabitants of Empire Falls as evil, Russo focuses only on their humanity.
I realised when I finished this novel how like me so many of the characters are. Like them I stumble through my life, making mistakes over and over again. But reflecting on the book early one morning I also realised that God is there too, patiently encouraging me. He never leaves. He is there when I fail, and there when my failings bring suffering to myself and to others. And when I mess up, that does not change his view of me. He lets me start again, to try again to be more fully what I can and should be.
Asides apart, Empire Falls is a complex story and Russo manages to bring the different elements together very well. It leads to a couple of dramatic and violent climaxes, enough to keep any reader interested. I wanted to keep reading to find out how it would turn out for the different characters, especially Miles and his daughter. Even though this is just a straightforward story of ordinary life, it is life enhancing.