Slowly, yet surely, I am making my way through all the Pulitzer Prize winners in fiction. I just completed “Empire Falls,” by Richard Russo, which won in 2002. It was a genuinely great book and very deserving of the prize, in my opinion.
Set in Maine, the story centers around Miles Roby, a humble underachiever who runs a diner called the Empire Grill. He’s in the midst of a divorce from Janine, who is already engaged to another man, one who she thinks will give her everything Miles never did. Christina, who prefers the nickname Tick, is their quiet and conflicted daughter struggling through a difficult sophomore year.
Miles, along with most of the people in the town, works for Francine Whiting, the rich widow of C. B. Whiting. The Whitings had once owned and operated two large factories in town, but they’ve both shut down; however, Francine still owns most of the real estate, including the Empire Grill.
The story centers around Miles, but it goes back and forth in time to include his mother, Grace, who died years ago, and tells the history of C. B., a man who took his own life rather than continue to live the one laid out for him and from which he couldn’t escape. Miles comes to realize the important connection he has to the past and how that connection has kept him in a sort of limbo from which he’s finally able to get free.
Russo populates the town and his story with interesting characters, who are both likeable as well as utterly loathsome. However, even the loathsome ones have their good qualities, and Russo shows us that fate, and the cards it deals us, often control who we become. Sometimes, though, if we pay attention and learn, as Miles almost didn’t do, we can change those cards and play out a better hand.
The title of the book, “Empire Falls,” is both the name of the town where all the story takes place as well as a simple fact. The Whiting family built up an empire in central Maine along a river near some falls, and like every empire that has ever existed, that once mighty empire eventually must fall. Fall it does, by the end of the book. Most of the fall is due to C. B., who never wanted the life that fate had in store for him and who left his conniving widow and a crippled daughter as the only heirs to a crumbling empire.
There is much more to this story, though, that I don’t want to touch upon in this column because I don’t want to give things away. This book is hilarious at times and downright heartbreaking at others, but isn’t that exactly how life is? When an American novel can interweave the past with the present, reveal universal truths to us, introduce us to characters we wish were real just so we could go hang out with them, and entertain us, too, that novel is well-deserving of a Pulitzer Prize.
Next month’s reading selection is "Death Comes for the Archbishop," by Willa Cather.