Empire Falls, by Richard Russo
7.5/10, a well-written but sprawling Small-Town Drama
It seems odd to be disappointed in a Pulitzer winner, especially one recommended by a friend, but I think expectations were just high. The story of Miles Roby, manager of the Empire Grill, is an epic drama about the lives of people in a dying small town. Miles himself, at the center of the drama, is undergoing a divorce (while subjected to his ex-wife’s new fiance’s blunt attempts at friendship), pining over a years-long unrequited love, fending off a years-long unwanted love, resisting pressure from his brother to upgrade the diner, and dealing with the memories of his childhood that suggest, strongly, that he should have made more of his life.
If that seems like a handful, well, just wait until you meet the other characters: the town’s matriarch and owner of the Grill; the waitress who is the object of Miles’ affections; his high-school classmate, now an aggressive policeman; his daughter’s classmates, from the vapid girl to the popular bully to the silent loner; his crippled brother; the matriarch’s daughter, still in love with him; his ex-wife; her annoying fiance, later husband; not to mention all the characters from memory who intrude and add texture to the experiences of Miles and the others.
Miles and Tick occupy the bulk of the narrative, though his ex-wife has a bit of her own story going on, never really resolved. In fact, most of the issue I had with the book was that few of the storylines are resolved. There’s a climax at the end, which wraps up some things quickly and neatly; others persist through the end of the book. You all know how I feel about endings; this one bothered me a little.
The other issue I had with the book was stylistic. In a Pulitzer winner, I expected a little better than some of the awkward, heavy-handed description that I found in “Empire Falls.” There were a few compelling story arcs, but they weren’t that compelling. A lot of the description was telling rather than showing.
That said, there was a lot of good writing in it. There were passages that made me laugh out loud. Russo has a good sense of irony, and a great talent for description and imagery. I thought the characters were distinctive and interesting, so there’s definitely a lot to recommend the book, here. It just felt like it could’ve been better, which is not a feeling I got from the other Pulitzer winner I read recently, “The Age of Innocence”. Still, it’s worthwhile, though I understand the movie is pretty good, too. Maybe you should just rent that.