Book review – Empire Falls

I thought it was time that I delved again into the list of Pulitzer Prize winners for fiction.  I’ve mentioned the list before.  It’s a great source of literary recommendations.  Sometimes the titles fail to deliver the goods but, more often than not, they do.  This time round it’s the 2002 winner, Empire Falls by New Yorker Richard Russo.

Empire Falls is a fictional town in the US state of Maine.  It’s seen better, more prosperous days following the closure of the timber and textile mills.  Still, the population holds out hope that these days will return.  At the centre of the novel is Miles Roby, unassuming and loving father of Tick (Christina); ex-husband of Janine; son of the errant and irrepressible Max; brother of the previously wayward David; and manager of the local Empire Grill.  Miles has been flipping burgers at the grill for 20 years, at the expense of his college education and dreams.  Nevertheless, he’s built a life for himself in the small town.  However, like the river that runs through the town, there’s an undercurrent of ambition not being achieved, of being held back, especially by the fearsome Francine Whiting, who owns the thumb under which most of Empire Falls is under, including the Empire Grill.

What we’re served up, over the 500-plus pages of the novel, is a slice of small town America.  The plot unfolds in an innocuous manner, as if nothing of significance is ever going to happen.  It does.  But if it didn’t that would’ve been fine also.  In Empire Falls, Russo has created some wonderful characters, at the heart of which sit the Roby family.  The relationship between the family members is complex and Russo does a nice job in fleshing out the characters so there’s more to each of them than meets the eye.  But the extended family of regular diners of the Empire Grill, and the local parish priests are equally wonderful, including Walt Comeau, Janine’s fiance and regular thorn in Miles’s side, and Father Tom, an elderly priest reminiscent of Father Jack from the TV series Father Ted.

The book reminded me of Elizabeth Strout’s, Olive Kitteridge.  Both are set in Maine, portray small-town life and life in general, with all of its trials and tribulations (Kitteridge is also a Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction).  Also, like Oliver Kitteridge, Empire Falls has been made into a TV mini-series, starring the likes of Ed Harris and Paul Newman, which I guess is a testament to the strength of the book.  And if you hadn’t guessed already, I’d highly recommend Empire Falls.