The hardcover dust jacket of Richard Russo's Pulitzer Prize winning Empire Falls (2001)

Empire Falls

  • Author:  Richard Russo  (b. 1949)
  • Rank:  #71
  • Published:  2001
  • Publisher:  Alfred A. Knopf
  • Pages:  483  (Vintage paperback)
  • First Line:  “Compared to the Whiting mansion in town, the house Charles Beaumont Whiting built a decade after his return to Maine was modest.”
  • Last Lines:  “Together, dead woman and living cat bumped along the upstream edge of the straining dam, as if searching for a place to climb out and over.  Bumping, nudging, seeking, until finally a small section of the structure gave way and they were gone.”
  • ML Edition:  None
  • Acclaim:  Pulitzer Prize
  • Film:  2005  (**** – dir. Fred Schepisi – HBO mini-series)
  • Read:  Fall, 2001

The Novel: Empire Falls fits well into Richard Russo’s work.  It takes place in a small fictional town that has gone to seed, though this time it is Maine instead of New York.  It has a character who has managed to become a smart, upstanding member of the community in spite of the absence of a real father in his life.  It has scenes of side-splitting humor and lines that break off parts of each chapter that make you pause for a minute and think.  It makes, not only the town itself, but, more importantly, the people in that town come vividly to life.  That it won the Pulitzer Prize in a year where the other two major American literary awards went to Bel Canto and The Corrections, says enough about how well Russo succeeds at everything he sets out to do in the book.

Part of the brilliance of the story is to have it be the story of Miles Roby, but not to allow him to tell the story.  As would be more fully explored in Bridge of Sighs, which is told in first person narration, Miles often doesn’t see things, and especially himself, in the same way that other people do.  So we get the benefit of Miles’ story without being limited by Miles’ point of view (“the kind of man who can never quite manage to conceal his disapproval.”).  We also get long, rich, flash back scenes.  Rather than attempt to make one of the characters describe these scenes or find a way to fit them into the narrative, he opens and closes the parts of the book with these chapters, a glimpse into the past, before Empire Falls and the fortunes of the Whiting family began to decline.

These two things are interconnected, though Miles is long to come by this.  For the Whitings have allowed this to happen to the town, have even encouraged it, and it not until the family is completely gone from the town that it finally begins to heal itself.  But before we can get to that point, we first learn how such a thing could come to past, how Miles’ life intersects with this family and we will come to know them and him.  That this novel can be so incredibly funny and yet so heart-breaking, that something that builds so well could come crashing down so hard in such inevitable tragedy.  “This is what I dream,” one character tells another at the climax of the book and we’ve seen everything in his young life to understand that.

In the end, here’s what I’ll say.  I’m trying to re-read as many of these novels before writing about them, though I am somewhat limited by time.  But in re-reading this book, for perhaps, the fifth or sixth time, I was stunned to discover that it was over already.  I almost felt the need to read it yet again.  I couldn’t be separated from these characters already.  I wasn’t ready for it to be over.

the full poster for the wonderful HBO mini-series of Empire Falls

The Film: This was Paul Newman’s last appearance on film.  How fitting then, that it would be something that he would bring to HBO, to make sure it was done right and how perfect that it should co-star Joanne Woodward.  It is a little bit of irony that this couple that was together for so long and with so many on-screen relationships should never be onscreen at the same time.  (It is also an amazing coincidence that this novel should follow Snopes, the film version of which, The Long Hot Summer, was the first film the two made together and which they were married near the end of filming).  There is a scene in the making-of where Aidan Quinn mentions that this is the only project where he has ever committed to it simply upon being told who was in the cast.

And this truly is a remarkable cast (Philip Seymour Hoffman isn’t described as an Oscar winner because that was still a few months in his future at the time).  While the major supporting roles all go to great actors who also happen to be Oscar winners, the central role of Miles is embodied in a pitch-perfect performance by Ed Harris, one of those great actors who keeps appearing in the nominations list and never quite makes it to the stage.  Some day that will hopefully end and he will avoid being on the list with Burton, O’Toole and Kirk Douglas.  But for now, we can simply appreciate him.  He is everything we would expect from a character who attempted to escape and never quite made it far enough.  His scenes with Danielle Panabaker, who plays his daughter, Tick, are so heart-warming and real that we would almost expect them to be father and daughter.

Of course, as with any adaptation, even one that is given a greater time length, there are things that are cut.  We don’t learn quite as much about the scenes in the past as we do in the novel and most of the social goings-on at the high school are passed over.  But that’s what a great adaptation can do.  It can find what is the heart of a novel and make certain that it makes it to the screen.  By bringing it to HBO, Newman made certain that the relationships would be there on-screen, that the novel would vibrantly come to life.  Perhaps because it was filmed in several small towns in New England, the film looks exactly the way we would have expected from reading the novel.  As the trailer tells us, every small town has a big story.

One last word about Newman and Woodward.  As I said this was their last joint film.  And in the 47 years since The Long Hot Summer, they had expanded and developed.  But, in essence, these characters are later extensions of those same two characters from that film.  He is still sneaky and living off his wits, drinking and fooling around and letting life come to him.  She is still smart and cold and haughtily beautiful.  They are two of the best in all of film and it’s wonderful that they had so much time together to perfect these characters.

I’ve included the trailer below because it is really well done and it was the first time I ever heard the song “Run” by Snow Patrol, a song that perfectly captures the emotions on-screen.  The only drawback is that it does include one line that is better left to discover on-screen, though it cuts a key part of the line, so it’s not quite a spoiler.  Still, if you haven’t read the novel or seen the film, you should go there first.  Unless you don’t mind spoilers on-screen.