Small towns are frequent settings for fiction, but too often little villages and their inhabitants are either crudely caricatured or mistily romanticized, and both approaches miss the essence of these places. Richard Russo (Nobody's Fool)--native of Gloversville, N.Y. (population: 15,402)--has never fallen into either trap, making a career of portraying small towns realistically in his novels, finding all the ways in which the intimacy of small hamlets can be both comforting and claustrophobic. His fifth book, Empire Falls, is his most ambitious yet; this multigenerational tale spins a universe out of one dying mill town in Maine.
At the center of Empire Falls is Miles Roby, who dropped out of college two decades back to tend his dying mother and take a job running the Empire Grill, a greasy spoon owned by Francine Whiting, the widow of the town's richest man. Over the next 20 years, Miles stays behind the counter while the town withers--its textile mill and shirt factory closing down, the villagers buoyed only by rumors of new investment that never prove true. At 42, Miles is having a midlife crisis of sorts, one perhaps triggered by his wife's. (Janine Roby is divorcing him and marrying the health-club owner who helped her drop 60 pounds and gave her a belated first orgasm.) Miles--the kind of responsible, cautious person who forms the connective tissue of towns such as Empire Falls--looks at his smart, restless teenage daughter Tick and recalls his own smothered promise. He begins to consider leaving town, or at least expanding his business, but fears the wrath of Mrs. Whiting, who seems oddly bent on letting the restaurant go the way of her family's shuttered factories.
Russo instinctively understands the cosmology of a place like Empire Falls, how everyone in such a town is connected by blood, marriage, or shared childhoods. The novel has well-drawn characters in abundance, though the novelist is not equally generous to all of his people. (He's probably tougher than he needs to be, for example, on affection-starved Janine, and not tough enough on her saintly ex-husband.) His most fully rounded portraits are of Miles' wise but vulnerable daughter and especially his father, Max, who blows through life without a conscience, always on the lookout for loose change, free beer, and a ticket out of town. The novelist creates a memorable character in 70-year-old Max, making him both comic and cruel. His lies and schemes are as hilariously transparent as a child's, and Max has a childish inability to censor himself. Yet, despite a lifetime of poverty and strained relationships, he's unhampered by self-doubt; in his encounters with his son, his confidence is almost touching, a warped expression of unconditional parental love. "You can't hurt my feelings," he tells Miles cheerfully after his fed-up son flings yet another stick or stone his way.
The novelist's character portraits are finely drawn, but his epic canvas ultimately overwhelms him. He makes the mistake of trying to draw his wayward loose ends together too neatly at the end, with an action-packed finale that, while commenting on current real-life events, seems unrealistic. The whole point--and appeal--of small towns is that change happens incrementally, drama unfolds furtively; Empire Falls' final burst of sound and fury seems almost a betrayal of the lives of quiet desperation and slow-burning warmth found on America's vanishing Main Streets.