by Richard Russo (Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95)
RICHARD RUSSO'S particular gift is that he can write about the foibles and follies of small-town America without resorting to either shallow nostalgia or shameless caricature. Even if you can't imagine residing in the dead-end locales where he sets his tales or enduring the often unexpressed lives of his protagonists, it's impossible not to admire this author's comic invention and timing and his manifest affection for unapologetic eccentrics. From his first novel, Mohawk (1986), through his recently published fifth, Empire Falls, Russo has been painting blue-collar burgs in all their hopeless but heartwarming complexity, giving us panoramic and unforgettable stories where only cramped episodes brimming with pathos might seem to naturally take root.
The mid-Maine river town of Empire Falls used to be prosperous: its shirt factory, textile mill, and paper mill providing ample employment, its sidewalks crowded with shoppers on weekends. But economic slumps and a loss of faith in tomorrow have turned the place into a shadow of its former self. Like so many others in town, Miles Roby has trimmed his expectations to fit the local norm. After returning to care for his dying mother, he has let himself be trapped in Empire Falls, giving up what he dreamed might be a career in academia to become the 40-something proprietor of a pocket-edition restaurant owned, like almost everything else in town, by Mrs. Whiting, the blunt-spoken, manipulative widow of the mills' last operator. It isn't such a bad life, as long as he can get past the facts that his ambitious wife is divorcing him to wed an aging health-club owner with a stronger sex drive; his rascally, alcoholic father, Max, is constantly trying to scam money off him; and his daughter, Tick, has been dating the arrogant, football-playing son of the arrogant, mean-spirited sheriff.
However, Miles is growing weary of taking blows to his pride. He's begun to reassess his life for the first time in many moons. His younger, damaged brother wants Miles to buy the restaurant he's been managing for so long and thinks he's cowardly for not confronting Mrs. Whiting with this proposition. Meanwhile, Tick has convinced her father to hire a deeply troubled classmate, whose secrets threaten to upset the constant but fragile rhythms of Empire Falls, and Max has convinced a demented priest to filch his church's Sunday offerings and join him on a trip to the Florida Keys. As Miles endeavors to digest all of this, he's also dealing with recollections of a boyhood trip he took with his mother to Martha's Vineyard, where she apparently found solace from her loose-cannon husband in the embrace of a mysterious but kind gent named Charlie Mayne. As Miles slowly recognizes the significance of that oceanside affair—and its consequences on his adult life—he and the town that confines his spirit are both headed for a blowup.
RUSSO ROLLS his plot out patiently, like a painter content to draw in every branch around his timberline before moving on to the mountain beyond. He does the same with his characters, plumping up their dimensions little by revealing little, until you feel as if you've been in their midst for years. Thus, you should recognize the self-pitying tone in Miles' voice when he confesses to being "such a shit-eater," or nod knowingly when the waitress he's lusted after since their youth tells him, "I'd take you home so we could make love, except I couldn't stand how disappointed you'd be." Empire Falls is filled with such moments of unexpected familiarity, scenes that stand out even within the broad canvas of the novel's 512 pages. They're not unlike some small towns, really: memorable out of all proportion to their actual size.