Fording a river of regret
Just because you spent a few months of your impressionable years ramming pigs’ heads on spears on an uncharted island or knocking your new pal off a tree branch doesn’t mean you’re going to make the right choice when you decide what you want to be when you grow up.
Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Empire Falls,” proves there’s life after coming to consciousness and that you can get lost after you find yourself.
Miles Roby, Russo’s big-hearted and brooding main character, is stranded in the mythical town of Empire Falls, on a life-long streak of lousy decisions. He’s found himself, but it’s a self he’s never managed to be.
He missed out on a college degree because of his mother’s death, his lackluster marriage fizzled, he’s in a grudge match with a crooked local cop and, being the manager of a run-down diner in a run-down Maine town, he’s not the sanguine, sweater-ed and settled Martha’s Vineyard intellectual he and his mother dreamed he would be.
Lurking in the shadows – and slightly irritating, italicized chapters –of the novel, is the flash-backed story of Charles Beaumont Whiting, the most prodigal and profligate son of Empire Falls. Unlike Miles, he was happy not being what he was supposed to be, which was the inheritor of his family’s industrial fortune.
The Whitings owned the three factories that once made Empire Falls a bustling, almost cosmopolitan Maine hamlet. But Charles decided early on he was far more suited to the life of a hack poet, boozing and womanizing thousands of miles away in Mexico. But he gives into his family’s wishes, returns to Maine and inherits both the business and his forebears’ hapless destiny of marrying tyrannical women they end up hoping to murder.
He also picks a fight with Mother Nature –never a good idea in a serious novel –and reroutes the Empire River which rumbles past his abode-style mansion to prevent dead animals from washing up and rotting in his backyard.
At the beginning of the story, both the factories and Charles Whiting have shut down. The factories have been forced out of business by far-away competition and conglomerates and Whiting has done himself in after a few agonizing jaunts back and forth to Mexico.
The Whiting fortune now belongs to his wife, Francine Whiting, who functions as the fascist dictator, the shadow benefactor, the Delphic sybil and wicked witch of the west of Empire Falls all wrapped into one bitter old amoral barometer.
Whatever one has to measure –pleasant or painful –one can measure it against Mrs. Whiting, always the spiritual devil’s advocate, and the results are rarely to one’s credit –or to hers. She seethes as the nihilistic tumor of the town – oppressive, potent but in the end, the cause only of the painful erosion of her own jaded way of life.
She also owns, among other interests, the diner Miles manages and in some sense, owns Miles, who plods along, looking forward only to the arrival of his petulant daughter Tick every afternoon and his visits to the pastor of the church he’s been painting.
But as the story progresses, Miles begins to slip out from under her smothering thumb. Miles’ saga – one of several threads that unravel in the story – is a second coming of age as he remembers why he left Empire Falls the first time. His dreams are hauntingly reignited when a used bookstore –with home attached – comes up for sale on Martha’s Vineyard.
Happily for Russo, Miles’ stumbling reawakening is the most captivating part of his sometimes uneven tale. A character doesn’t have to be likeable to be a powerful thematic figure, but the reader definitely roots for Miles and that helps fuel Russo’s story. We’re not buried, as we are in other novels, by an author’s overbearing laceration of his leading man.
We don’t want Miles to take the easy way out, a path which is available to him if he just shuts off his hopes and does what Mrs. Whiting wants. We genuinely want him to do what will enable him to live with himself in a much more fulfilling manner– even if that means alienating acquaintances and punching the crooked cop’s lights out.
Miles, refreshingly, is not ready to live vicariously through his cherished daughter, who, unfortunately, is one of the novel’s blander characters. Tick is too typically awkward and irritated a teen – it’s not that she doesn’t seem realistic, one just wishes she had a little more verve.
And a lot of the other characters come off as either cranks or drips –such as Miles’ sourpuss and cynical brother, his sleazy father and his ex-wife’s overblown buffoon of a new husband. Perhaps Russo exhausted his energies creating Miles, but whatever happened, Miles overshadows the personalities around him and when Russo pays too much attention to them it drags on the story.
If Empire Falls is, as its names perhaps ironically suggests, an empire falling, the sacking barbarians come in the second-strongest character –the strange new schlepp in town, John Voss. Voss, a deeply traumatized teenager, arrives in Tick’s school with all the emotional spark and adaptability of a child raised in a filthy closet –which isn’t too far from how the tormented young man spent his early years.
John Voss’ menacing presence tips us off that we’re bound for an eruption –out of Miles, Mrs. Whiting, John Voss, the town, the colliding plot threads –and the suspense over who’ll be left standing puts wind in the book’s sails.
And rooting for Miles to reconquer his lost and more realized self remains rewarding throughout, even if the book’s conclusions are a bit predictable and more provincial than universal.
Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at email@example.com.