The history of American literature may show that Richard Russo wrote the last great novel of the 20th century. His newly released "Empire Falls" holds the fading culture of small-town life in a light that's both illuminating and searing. It captures the interplay of past and present, comedy and tragedy, nation and individual in the tradition of America's greatest books.
The mills that caused Empire Falls, Maine, to mushroom during the last half of the 19th century have long since closed in this carefully drawn novel. But the Whiting family still owns the industrial husks, the river frontage, most of the town's buildings, and the tired souls of its inhabitants.
One of those cowed citizens is Miles Roby, whose reflexive patience frustrates even the friends and relatives who adore him. Twenty years ago, against his dying mother's wishes, he dropped out of college to care for her and manage the Empire Grill. Like everything else, it's owned by the Whiting matriarch, but Miles clings to a vague promise that he'll inherit the dilapidated restaurant when the time comes.
But time has come and gone in Empire Falls, and old Mrs. Whiting shows no sign of ever loosening her grasp on life or the town or Miles. Along with her maniacal cat, she has long nursed an interest in him, expressed in acts of generosity laced with an aftertaste of poison.
At 42, Miles finds himself stuck in a greasy spoon, "haunted by a profound feeling of personal failure."
His fitness-crazed wife has filed for divorce, with loud revelations about his various inadequacies. She plans to marry the virile Silver Fox, a daily patron at the Empire Grill who's full of helpful suggestions about improving his business.
Although Miles is practically single again, the waitress he's ogled since high school has fallen in love with his brother, who may be using the restaurant to distribute marijuana.
More troubling, one of his high school companions has become a petty police officer and launched a campaign of low-level harassment.
And finally, his 16-year-old daughter can't seem to break up with her sleazy boyfriend, make peace with her future stepfather, or distance herself from a frighteningly disturbed classmate.
Amid these challenges, Miles raises his daughter with quiet desperation, settling for a truce with the forces suffocating his older dreams. "There was much to be thankful for," he thinks, "even if the balance of things remained too precarious to inspire confidence."
But that sullen peace is only a facade to cover a spirit torn by love and fear, guilt and resentment, tensions Russo captures beautifully as Miles paints an old church in his spare time. He volunteered for the job, but he eyes the tall steeple with dread as he scrapes away the flakes, preparing for a new coat of white. Like so many episodes in this remarkable book, it's a scene redolent with symbolic meaning but naturally blended into the spectrum of these people's lives.
Just as the past lingers around Empire Falls, italicized chapters rise up in the main story to trace the strange involvement of Miles's family with the Whitings. These episodes, tinted with gothic motifs and punctured with tragedy, emphasize the tremors of will and affection that continue to quiver in the survivors.
The deadpan wit of Russo's previous book, "Straight Man," runs all through this more weighty novel, particularly in his devastating (and devastatingly funny) descriptions of small-minded people. But what's remarkable about Russo is his willingness to climb into the minds of the vain, the stupid, the stubborn, even the cruel, and discover in their vulnerable souls the germs of dormant humanity.
The pressure that directs the Knox River to dump debris along the banks of Empire Falls is no more powerful than the urges of these alienated people to wreack havoc on those nearby. Throughout this mammoth book, Russo describes the politics of town, school, and family with a sense of moral outrage, tempered by comic appreciation of the grotesque.
The inhabitants of Empire Falls seem so real that the smallest incidents are engaging, and the horrors that erupt will catch your breath. Try reminding yourself it's only a book while praying their dreams somehow break into life.
"After all," the narrator says, "what was the whole wide world but a place for people to yearn for their hearts' impossible desires, for those desires to become entrenched in defiance of logic, plausibility, and even the passage of time, as eternal as polished marble?"
In "Empire Falls," Russo has carved the whole wide world of this little town with such fidelity that we can't help but consider the dimensions of our own lives.
"Miles, I don't know. It's true that you're about the most cautious man I've ever run across. You're kind and patient and forgiving and generous, and you don't seem to understand that these qualities can be really annoying in a man, no matter what the ladies' magazines say."
- Richard Russo, "Empire Falls"
Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to charlesr@ csmonitor.com.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor