Miles Roby grew up in Empire Falls, Maine. He has seen the place transition from a thriving textile and lumber center to a city trapped in economic despair. The factories closed years ago, and those who remain have false hope that the industries, employment, and prosperous economy will return. Miles's mother hoped he would escape when she sent him away to college, but he dropped out and returned to care for her in the weeks before she died. That was long ago, and Miles is still here.
Richard Russo's 2001 novel "Empire Falls" is mostly Miles's story. But it is also the story of a city weathered by adversity and of the people who remained.
The title refers to the location where most of the story takes place, but it may also refer to the fall of an empire. The city itself is a fallen empire, and so is its founding family - The Whitings. Dowager Francine Whiting is currently the family matriarch who still holds much of the town's depressed property. She owns almost everything in the city, which leads her to assume that she also owns its residents. Francine is one of the story's villains - manipulating those around her and making life difficult for Miles.
The town has many dark secrets. Terrible fathers raise sons who grow up to be terrible fathers and husbands, abusing their wives and instilling poor values in their children, perpetuating a cycle that has continued for generations.
Miles attempts to break this cycle, despite being surrounded by mediocrity. His father is an unkempt slacker whose greatest talent is getting others to pay for his drinks and his annual trip to Key West. Miles's wife Janine has left him and plans to marry arrogant, dishonest Walt Comeau, primarily because sex with Walt is so much better than with Miles. Miles's daughter Tick is artistic and has a good heart but suffers from the angst of trying to fit in with the popular kids at her high school - particularly her ex-boyfriend Zack Minty. Zack is a star football player and a bully who reserves his worst torments for Tick's extremely introverted friend John Voss. Zack's father, Jimmy, is Miles's other antagonist. Jimmy - Miles's former high school classmate - is currently a policeman, lacking in wit and integrity. He insists that he and Miles were once friends, but Miles wants nothing to do with him. Miles perseveres, trying his best to lead a decent life.
The book introduces a lot of characters and a lot of character backstories. But this is necessary because these characters drive the story more than the plot.
The plot tends to move slowly until an unexpectedly violent climax at the end.
Russo fills in gaps with decades-old flashbacks, revealing the history of the families and the town and answering questions raised previously. Francine's husband, Charles Whiting, rejected the ruthlessness of his family's business practices and considered escaping from a loveless marriage; but he was too weak to succeed at either. He temporarily fled to Mexico before returning to Empire Falls and taking his own life.
"Empire Falls" raises questions about how much control we have over our lives. Do we accept the fate handed to us, or do we work to forge our own path? Miles is different from most of his narrow-minded neighbors; but he suffers from the same frailty - he lacks the courage to leave a dying town and begin his life again. It is not until the violent incident at the end that he begins to examine his life options.
This book paints an unflattering picture of American backwaters. But Russo tells the story well, and it resonated with me.