I’ve circled it for the past few years, but now I have finally read Richard Russo’s most famous and most acclaimed novel Empire Falls, and I can say that it is truly his best work: a culmination of his tried and true themes, his narrative ability and the grand yet quaint empathy he has for his characters, especially the misfits. Russo just might be the best writer living today at conveying the lives of small town American folks, people who just barely get by on dreams for the future of simply what little they have. They tend to fight, be in dire straits financially yet always seem to live their lives with dignity grace and more than a little humor, both highbrow and lowbrow. From books like Mohawk to his Two Fool novels, Nobody’s Fool and Everybody’s Fool, Russo is a master at these kinds of stories, that are warm without being cloying, sweet without being saccharine, deep in pathos, disappointment and aggression but always in ways that are recognizable and undeniably human. Those themes are on full display here in the fictional Maine town of Empire Falls, where everyone knows everyone, but the town’s foundations seems built on an intricately balanced collection of secrets and half-truths. Someone who seems to be the most burdened by the town’s framework is Miles Roby; the head cook at the Empire Grill. A man of great self-sacrifice but not a lot of self-awareness, at the beginning of the novel he is going through a painless yet exhausting divorce from his wife Janine, he has a shaky relationship with his daughter Tick and he is constantly under the thumb from the covertly cruel Francine Whiting, who seems to own every valuable piece of everything in Empire Falls. Russo is an expert at deepening the complexity of his narratives by having the perspective switch constantly, so the town and the people in it becoming integral to each other and to the story. There is Walt Comeau, the man Janine is leaving miles for; an ageing meathead who owns a fitness center in town and gives Janine orgasms that Miles could not. There is Miles brother David, a recovering addict with more wisdom and insight than Miles could ever have and Miles’ dad Max, a surly old leech with a heart of gold. There is Jimmy Minty, the power hungry cop with an axe to grind with Miles and a rock-lined path to the position of chief of police, who becomes more pivotal and more scary as the book moves toward a climax that was surprising for someone like Russo but pulled off in brilliant fashion that was never tawdry or exploitative. There is a certain comfort that comes with reading a Russo book, even one that is not very good. It washes over you as you slowly move towards an end that is always well crafted and eye opening. You know you are in the gentle hands of someone who knows what they are doing better than anyone else, and nowhere in his oeuvre is that more apparent than in this book.