EMPIRE FALLS. Richard Russo. 2001. Vintage Books. (483 pgs)
First Sentence: (from the Prologue) “Compared to the Whiting mansion in town, the house Charles Beaumont Whiting built a decade after his return to Maine was modest.”
(from Chapter One) “The Empire Grill was long and low-slung, with windows that ran its entire length, and since the building next door, a Rexall drugstore, had been condemned and razed, it was now possible to sit at the lunch counter and see straight down Empire Avenue all the way to the old textile mill and its adjacent shirt factory.”
Note: After I read the italicized thirteen page prologue, which is set predominantly in the prosperous past of previous decades, I suspected that the first chapter – in regular block print – would take place in present day (the photo on the book jacket clued me in) so I read the first ten pages of Chapter One and realized that while the Prologue contained the catalytic events of this epic story, the bulk of Richard Russo’s 483 pages would take place in the early 2000’s. So, I’ve decided to comment on the first ten pages of Chapter One instead of the Prologue.
Prevailing Narrative Voice: Third-person with an omniscient narrative voice, the kind that knows everything, can see everyone and what they think, too. This is reflected in the sweeping, “historical” prologue followed by a much slower and more detailed telling of contemporary events.
Setting: Present day. Empire Falls, Maine, a fictional town based on fundamentally real, contemporary circumstances
What we learn in first paragraphs: Not only do we learn certain gossipy events of a small, declining factory town population, but we are given strong clues to how this author will tell us the story. Empire Falls is a fictional place that represents a much larger demographic of Maine and America as a whole. Likewise, the narrator establishes an item, in this case the Empire Grill, and then telescopes in and out from short to long range views of the town and its population. We telescope from inside the Empire Grill, to next door, to outside of the Grill. The reader is then slung down to the end of the street and then directly into the thoughts of the proprietor of the Grill and his distain for certain members of his community. This in and out action continues and becomes a device that Russo continues to use in the Prologue and the first ten pages of Chapter One, and, I suspect, throughout the novel. We also learn that Miles Robey, from whose point of view the reader gets their first contemporary view of Empire Falls, is an educated man, smarter than most everyone he knows, and who made a huge error in returning to Empire Falls. This is underscored by an interesting comment the narrator makes. Most people only look out the Empire Grill’s window and DOWN the street toward the failed mill. Rarely does anyone look UP the street (at what we don’t know just yet). Miles Roby’s situation and accounting for the error he has made, it seems, will be a major element of this story.
What we learn in first 10 pages: Without being derogatory, we learn more of the same. Clearly established over the course of the first ten pages is that this is going to be a big story full of small-town people whose lives interconnect. We meet Myles, his brother, his daughter, the town newspaper reporter, the jerk who married Myles’ ex-wife and during this extrapolation the reader is told from several points of view about the rich woman who owns the town, Myles’ duplicitous father, his dear and departed mother, old friends in Martha’s Vineyard, and why it was probably Myles’ fault that his ex-wife divorced him. In addition, not only do we learn it from Myles’ POV, but via comments and contributions made by the other characters, which illustrates how everyone is connected to everyone else’s business in Empire Falls. Mr. Russo offers the narrative information carefully and evenly, and what keeps the information from becoming an overwhelming list of facts is how he allows each contributing character to invest the information with their own point of view. For instance, Myles accepts much of the blame (and none of the credit) for his failed marriage. His daughter and brother, on the other hand, contradict that point of view. Voila! Differing points of view create characters that are more like real people. What a concept! Allowing multiple character points of view softens the omniscient narrative voice, and allows the reader to follow the narrative point of view without being told how to think.
Plot & Expectations: Right away, the reader must understand that there will be a lot of information to assimilate over the course of this story. It is clear that Mr. Russo’s story has many facets and that the reader is being prepared to receive several interconnecting story lines, but that the pace will be comfortable. Even though I don’t know how all of these characters will influence each other, I grasp that they will. Myles Roby has a very strong relationship to his daughter. His daughter’s bond to her mother is less strong, and that bond is even weaker with her stepfather, who is unanimously revealed as a jerk. I would expect to meet several more characters and proceed along at this pace for at least a hundred pages or so (25% of the total book) in order to understand all of the events, players and how they will interface and conflict, and ultimately resolve.
Comments: There is something about the declining mill town that reflects several areas of the country, Detroit, areas of the south, anyplace that his been hit by recession, and even though there seems to be quite a bit of griping at the Empire Grill, the narrative is revealed with humor or at least irony. As a reader, I feel prepped to travel along whichever course the author and this narrator will go. The fact that Empire Falls won the Pulitzer Prize also makes me more receptive to whatever course and tempo the narrator releases information, and I assume there will be plenty of information revealed as we to travel through Empire Falls, Maine.
On a more empirical note, in the first ten pages Russo delivers who’s talking to the reader (a congenial, omniscient voice), where we are right now (in a Diner, in Maine) what seems to be upsetting this location from being a perfect world (in a recession, in the thought world of a guy who is awfully hard on himself, and in the thought worlds of several of his friends who confirm that message). I feel that as a reader I am being set up to be with people with agree to disagree. And somehow that will come around and bite them.