Richard Russo

Empire Falls

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Empire Falls Summary

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Empire Falls is a 2001 novel by Richard Russo. In 2002, the book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The novel tells the story of Miles Roby who lives in a blue-collar town in Maine. As the narrative unfolds, the reader comes to understand more about Miles and his past, as well as the other characters that come in and out of his life as he manages the Empire Grill.

As the novel opens, it is a quiet afternoon at the Empire Grill diner. Proprietor and fry cook Miles Roby is looking out the window, deep in thought. His life has not been an easy one. He and his brother David were raised by their mother, Grace, who received very little financial support or help from their father. Grace Roby was forced to work long hours at the local shirt factory in order to provide for her family. Miles recalls that he used to dream about going off to college, but those plans were put on hold when his mother was diagnosed with cancer and he decided to stay at home to take care of her.

Miles has just been left by his wife, which has him wondering if his luck will ever turn around. His only hope hinges on a promise that Francine Whiting, owner of the Empire Grill, made to him twenty years ago. Francine promised that when she dies, Miles will inherit the diner. Miles clings to this hope, but even it is fading, and he is having trouble finding the will to go on. When he was younger, owning the diner seemed like a great idea and a solution to all of his problems. However, with the way the economy has turned in his town and the numerous empty storefronts that line the streets, Miles worries that the Empire Grill might not be worth owning by the time he actually inherits it.

Miles’s daughter, Christina, nicknamed Tick, arrives shortly thereafter, interrupting Miles’s somber daydreams. Carrying a heavy book bag, she solemnly greets her father and her uncle David. She makes a point of ignoring Walter Comeau, who comes to the Grill only to taunt Miles with the fact that Walt seduced Miles’s wife, Janine, away from him.

Tick has her own problems and has been feeling nearly as glum as her father. After recently breaking up with her abusive boyfriend, Zack, she has been shunned by his friends and must find a new social circle to call her own. At lunch, she ends up sitting with the other social rejects, including the emotionally disturbed John Voss. Tick has one friend of her own, Candace, but she is shallow and self-absorbed, oblivious to Tick’s feelings. While Tick still enjoys working at her father’s diner, she is also concerned that the town around her is dying and wonders what kind of future a place like this could hold for her.

Today, Miles has to visit Francine Whiting to provide her with all of the Grill’s financial details. Things don’t look good, as for many years now his balance sheet has recorded far more loss than profit. As Miles heads over to his meeting with Mrs. Whiting, he wonders why she has even allowed him to keep the doors open this long, when so many of her other businesses have already gone under.

His meeting with Mrs. Whiting provides no further clarity, as they once again decide that the doors of the Grill will remain open for another year. Miles knows he should be relieved, but he can’t shake the anxiety of his divorce and the feeling that his daughter is growing more distant from him every day. He thinks about the history of the town, Empire Falls, and how the factory’s former owner, C.B. Whiting, envisioned such a bright future for the place.

Tick decides to try to befriend loner John Voss, even helping him to get a job washing dishes at her dad’s diner. Tick is unaware of how deeply troubled John really is, until one day, John brings a gun to school and murders Justin Dibble, the art teacher Mrs. Rodrigues, and the principal, Otto Meyer. After an extensive background check, it is revealed that John suffered greatly as a child, and the bullying he endured at school was the final trigger for his homicidal rage.

After the murders at Tick’s school, Miles makes the decision to leave Empire Falls. He informs Mrs. Whiting he no longer wishes to work for her and moves himself and his daughter to Martha’s Vineyard.

After six months, Miles realizes his funds are dwindling, and so he decides to return to Empire Falls. The Empire Grill has closed, but his brother David has taken over a nearby bar with which he is able to turn a small profit. New proprietors have moved in to take over Mrs. Whiting’s old properties, and they seem to have big plans for the little town. Miles and Tick are hopeful, deciding that they have made the right choice in moving back home.