Monday, October 11, 2021

In search of the meaning of Maine - a note of Richard Russo's Empire Falls


Recently, I moved to Portland, Maine, and have settled in enough to see if I can write anything coherent.  The last time I moved, eleven years ago, I wrote five posts a week, only resorting to a poetry-quoting post once.  That was a more energetic fellow. 


The photo is from nearby Mackworth Island, taken in September.

Expect to see me reading more books about Maine.  I will try not to harp on their Maineness, of limited interest, even if that is why I am reading them.  Richard Russo’s 2001 novel Empire Falls is eminently Maineish, set in a version of the many Maine mill towns, with the (former) mill owner on one side of the river and the (former) mill employees scrabbling on the other side, the mill itself an empty hulk dominating the town.  Today, the mill has likely been converted into condos or craft breweries or performance space, but not when Russo was writing.

The characters are ordinary people with ordinary lives, except exaggerated for comic effect, like they are drawn with thick outlines, speaking dialogue ready for actors as good as these.  Empire Falls is not as funny as Straight Man (1997), but I thought parts were awfully funny.  Russo is especially good with movement, just getting people in and out of cars and cars on and off sidewalks, that kind of thing.

Near the end, Russo pulls in a Big Social Issue of the Time that seemed to me like a mistake, since it is used primarily to jolt the characters forward in their ordinary-life plot.  I am not convinced Russo has any particular insight into the Big Social Issue, or uses it in a way that gives the novel any extra ethical meaning.  The Pulitzer Prize committee disagreed with me, but I have never understood them.

Russo’s ongoing critique of masculinity, now he has a lot of insight there.  It is not pretty to see, but in his hands it is at least funny, in a wincing kind of way.

I should provide a quotation or two to support some of the above notions, but just about the last thing I did this summer was take any notes.  I would especially like to support that bit about the craft of motion verbs.  Oh well.

I am 90% sure I have already run into Richard Russo, at Print, his – or his daughter’s? – perfect little bookstore, which I have visited once a week.  He was wearing a mask and hat, so I cannot be completely sure, but he had his dog in the store and was advising – ordering? – the manager to stock Inferno, since it’s the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death.

If you see me reading more Russo, or Sarah Orne Jewett, Stephen King, E. B. White, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Brock Clarke, Edwin Arlington Robinson, or Rachel Carson, you will know I am in pursuit of the essence of Maine.  It seems nice so far.  If you come by, let me know.  We can go to Print.


  1. Pretty part of the country--and ocean!--must be nice to be settled in.

  2. It is awful pretty. Six egrets at the cove half an hour ago, and that's just on the way to the grocery store.

  3. My sister-in-law lives in Portsmouth, NH. We went up to Portland once just to see it. Gawd only knows when we'll be able to travel again.

  4. Never been to Maine and don't expect to go but did enjoy reading Empire Falls years ago, when it first came out.

  5. I didn't realize you were moving to Maine, Amateur Reader (Tom)! I live in a very close suburb and would love to see both of you again when something like, say, getting together for coffee sounds relaxing again. And yes about Print: Emily is Richard Russo's daughter. And I've seen him in the store a number of times, usually "in conversation" with visiting writers.

    In any case, welcome!

  6. Portsmouth, almost neighbors. Everything is so together close here. A little different than the Great Plains.

    Russo is so good at creating characters who I want to spend time with. Nebbishs, losers, goof-ups, but good company.

    Yes, Lisa, coffee sometime. I find coffee relaxing now! We have been enjoying your marsh.

  7. I've been thinking longingly of Maine lately! I'm not a fan of our hot summers. I bet Portland is lovely.

  8. I've been there! Just passing through, though. Maine is beautiful. There is a lot of it, we realized the first time we drove all the way to Nova Scotia from Ithaca. You can't avoid it. Will you be reading May Sarton?

  9. The summers are outstanding here, and so far the autumn has been similarly nice.

    We would like to visit Nova Scotia, but I don't think we're driving. Maine just goes and goes and goes.

    May Sarton is an excellent idea. I have only read her cat novel. The library, not surprisingly, has shelves of May Sarton. The House by the Sea looks like a good place to meet her Maine.

  10. Don't forget Carolyn Chute (of "The Beans of Egypt, Maine" and Second Maine Militia fame)...

  11. Yes, Chute - how are those books? Beans has been embraced by Maine, or at least it is always in the "local" section of the bookstores, which is pretty good for a quirky old bestseller.

    1. I really don't know. I read "Beans" back when it came out. I seem to remember it as Faulkner with parkas.

    2. What amazes me, reading about Chute, is that the books have kept coming, for decades, most recently part 4 of a 5 part series of novels about a "polygamist compound in Maine" (quoting Wiki). Those are definitely not in every tourist-facing bookstore.