And Gets Back Up Again

Empire Falls by Richard Russo.  Vintage.  483 pp. $16.95. ****

Richard Russo has done it again, written a book where I was full of a kind of mild admiration through the first half, seeing how he had set up an interesting situation, sketched in some sympathetic characters, done some writing that was mildly humorous, then somehow, by the end of the book, transformed it into a novel that I could hardly wait to read every night, was always tempted to stay up late.  I’m reminded of the last line of H.L. Mencken’s review of An American Tragedy (which was published in two volumes): “Get your preacher to read the first volume.  But don’t miss the second.”

I feel as if I know where the novel became more interesting.  In the present time it recounts the life of a man named Miles Roby, who is trying to keep a diner in Maine together while his life is falling apart all around him.  But throughout the novel Russo includes flashbacks, which he designates by printing them in italics, and there is one partway through where Miles as a boy goes on vacation with his mother to Martha’s Vineyard.  He doesn’t understand how this is happening—they’ve never gone on vacation before, and his mother and father are blue collar people, his father a house painter who has a problem with alcohol and disappears for days at a time—but all of a sudden he and his mother are in this different kind of place with a different kind of people.

There are multiple things about Miles as a boy that are charming.  He has a new baseball mitt that he is obsessed with, actually goes to the beach to throw pop flies to himself.  He discovers steamer clams at a cheap restaurant and wants to have them for every dinner.  His mother was beautiful that summer, and bought a new dress for the occasion.  One night they went to a better restaurant, and soon a man at a nearby table took an interest in her, and we understand, as readers, what is really going on, and how she has gotten the money to get there.  The whole story deepened at that point, and got far more interesting.  It stayed that way to the end.

In the present Miles isn’t doing well.  He acquired the diner because he came home from college to work in it when his mother had cancer, to her extreme chagrin; her deepest wish was to get him out of that town.  The diner was owned by the widow of an industrialist named C.B. Whiting, the latest in a whole clan of industrialists, who had more or less owned the town through the years.  The deal was that, if Miles would run the diner for Mrs. Whiting while she was alive, he would inherit it at her death.  But Miles is in his early forties and she shows no signs of dying (there’s a rumor that even her mother is still alive), and the town of Empire Falls is depressed in every way; the jobs have gone elsewhere.  This is the Rust Belt problem we’ve been hearing so much about lately, though we’re in Maine and not the Rust Belt.

There are a slew of things in the present situation that are annoying for the reader.  Miles wife Janine has left him for a local guy who owns a health club; she’s lost considerable weight on the man’s Stairmaster and sees him as the way to a new life, but the guy himself is a jackass who shows he’s still friends with Miles by hanging around the diner.  Miles’ daughter Tick is a sensitive sweet girl who fell for a boy on their summer vacation but in Empire Falls is dogged by the son of a local cop, a man who has never been Miles’ favorite and who has a shady relationship with Mrs. Whiting.  Miles’ brother David is a recovering alcoholic who suffered a horrific accident because of his drinking, and now works in the diner; a woman who Miles had a crush on when he was young but who has since been married four times also works there.  It sometimes seems it’s the only semi-viable place to work in town.  And Miles drunken father Max is still around, a ne’er do well like Sully from Nobody’s Fool who has lots of charm but little money and spends his life trying to get somebody, usually his son, to supply him with beer money.  He’s likable enough but has left lots of damage in his wake.

The most annoying thing is Miles himself and his overwhelming passivity.  He lets this guy come into the diner who is banging his wife.  He stays friends with his wife though she treats him dreadfully.  He has no idea how to deal with his daughter (for that we can forgive him; he’s just an American man).  He’s helpless in the face of his drunken father.  He’s also stuck running this diner whose profit margin is tiny, is never going to get any better, and whose autocratic owner—a ballbuster of a woman if there ever was one—will probably outlive him.  For the first half of the novel we keep thinking, Do something, man.  Get yourself out of this hole.  Various people—his brother in particular, who has faced his personal demons, have suggestions.  But Miles stands there stupefied as if someone had just whacked him over the head, or done a secret operation and removed his balls.  Or both.

I take it back about Miles being the most annoying person in the novel.  Mrs. Whiting’s daughter Cindy was badly crippled by a childhood auto accident, and she’s had a lifelong crush on Miles, supposedly tried to kill herself twice because of her unrequited love.  She has just shown up in town again after a long hiatus.  Miles could—obviously—marry her, and be set for life (his father would do it in a heartbeat), or possibly, get her to have some influence with her mother.  Instead, he spends time with her even when he doesn’t want to and listens to her call him, “Dear Miles, dear, dear Miles.”  I sometimes thought that if I read that phrase one more time I would scream.  Or, if I were in her presence, strangle her myself.

The novel gets better—predictably—when events transpire which force Miles to act.  He somehow finds and re-attaches his balls.  There is a lot of plot in the second half—the first half is all set-up, the second all action—but it makes sense and ties things together.  I thought the second half of the book was wonderful, and the novel won a Pulitzer Prize, and was made into an HBO movie with some big stars.  I’ll watch the movie this weekend, and will undoubtedly read at least one more Russo novel, probably Everybody’s Fool, which includes the return of Sully.

Russo has a thing for the Sully like character, the engaging charming blue collar drunk who lives not so much from job to job as from beer to beer.  Sully more or less made Richard Russo, inspiring what I would guess is his most popular novel.  But in Empire Falls, though I liked Max Roby, I could really see his failings.  He had a gorgeous and interesting wife as a young man whom he more or less ignored, preferring the company of a beer bottle.  He made one alcoholic and the other paralyzingly passive.  He redeems himself a little at the end by being around when Miles needs him, but how much help can he be?  He’s still looking for a beer.