Hydrology in Richard Russo’s Empire Falls

September 27, 2010 § 3 Comments

Empire Falls by Richard Russo, 2001

I just finished reading Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Empire Falls, which I recommend.

It’s definitely not about Los Angeles, but about a river town in Maine. As a Los Angeles Creek Freak, I enjoyed a sub-plot, not even integral to the main story, about their Knox River, the trash that it carried, and attempts to realign its waters.  

(Spoiler alert: I quote from the end of the novel below. While it’s not central to the plot, the river does come back into the picture at the end of the book.) 

Here’s an excerpt from the introductory prologue, describing past events leading up to the present-day (2001) story. Though I couldn’t find a specifically date, it seems like these events take place around the 1950s or maybe ’60s:   

When the bulldozers began to clear the house site, a disturbing discovery was made. An astonishing amount of trash – mounds and mounds of it – was discovered all along the bank, some of it tangled among tree roots and branches, some of it strewn up the hillside, all the way to the top. The sheer volume of junk was astonishing, and at first C. B. Whiting concluded that somebody, or a great many somebodies, had had the effrontery to use the property as an unofficial landfill. How many years had this outrage been going on? It made him mad enough to shoot somebody until one of the men he’d hired to clear the land pointed out that for somebody, or a great many somebodies, to use Whiting land as a dump, they would have required an access road, and there wasn’t one, or at least there hadn’t been one until C. B. Whiting cut one himself a month earlier. While it seemed unlikely that so much junk – spent inner tubes, hubcaps, milk cartons, rusty cans, pieces of broken furniture  and the like – could wash up on one spot naturally, the result of currents and eddies, there it was, so it must have. There was little alternative but to cart the trash off, which was done the same May the foundation of the house was being poured.   

Spring rains, a rising river, and a bumper crop of voracious black flies delayed construction, but by late June the low frame of the sprawling hacienda was visible from across the river where C. B. Whiting kept tabs on its progress from his office on the top floor of the Whiting shirt factory. By the Fourth of July, the weather had turned dry and hot, killing off the last of the black flies, and the shirtless sunburned carpenters straddling the hacienda roof beams began to wrinkle their noses and regard one another suspiciously. What in the world was that smell?

It was C. B. Whiting himself who discovered the bloated body of a large moose decomposing in the shallows, tangled among the roots of a stand of trees that had been spared by the bulldozer that they might provide shade and privacy from anyone on the Empire Falls side of the river who might be too curious about goings-on at the hacienda. Even more amazing than this carcass was another mound of trash, which, though smaller than its carted-off predecessor, was deposited in the exact same area where a spit of land jutted out into the river and created in its lee a stagnant, mosquito- and now moose-infested pool.

The sight and smell of all this soggy, decomposing trash caused C. B. Whiting to consider the possibility that he had an enemy, and kneeling there on the bank of the river he scrolled back through his memory concerning the various men he, his father and his grandfather had managed to ruin in the natural course of business. The list was not short, but unless he’d forgotten someone, no one on it seemed the right sort.

[…]

C. B. Whiting spend the rest of the afternoon on one knee and only a few feet from the blasted moose, trying to deduce his enemy’s identity. Almost immediately a paper cup floated by and lodged between the hind legs of the moose. The next hour brought a supermarket bag, and empty bobbing Coke bottle, a rusted-out oil can, a huge tangle of monofilament fishing line and, unless he was mistaken, a human placenta. All of it got tangled up in the reeking moose. From where C. B. Whiting knelt, he could just barely see one small section of the Iron Bridge, and in the next half hour he witnessed half a dozen people, in automobiles and afoot, toss things into the river as they crossed. In his mind he counted the number of bridges spanning the Knox upstream (eight), and the number of mills and factories and small businesses that backed onto the river (dozens). He knew firsthand the temptation of dumping into the river after the sun went down. Generations of Whitings had been flushing dyes and other chemicals, staining the riverbank all the way to Fairhaven, a community that could scarcely complain, given that its own textile mill had for decades exhibited an identical lack of regard for its downstream neighbors. Complaints, C. B. knew, inevitably led to accusations, accusations to publicity, publicity to investigations, investigations to litigation, litigation to expense, expense to the poorhouse.

Still, this particular dumping could not be allowed to continue. A sensible man, Charles Beaumont Whiting arrived at a sensible conclusion. At the end of a second hour spent kneeling at the river’s edge, he concluded that he had an enemy all right, and it was none other than God Himself, who’d designed the damn river in such a way – narrow and swift-running upstream, widening and slowing at Empire Falls – that all manner of other people’s shit became Charles Beaumont Whiting’s.

[…]

[C. B. Whiting’s father] Honus suggested his son hire some geologists and engineers to study the problem and recommend a course of action. This turned out to be excellent advice, and the engineers, warned Whom they might be up against, proved meticulous. In addition to numerous on-site inspections, they analyzed the entire region on geological survey maps and even flew the length of the river all the way from the Canadian border to where it emptied into the Gulf of Maine. As rivers went, the Knox was one of God’s poorer efforts, wide and lazy where it should have been narrow and swift, and the engineers concurred with the man who’d hired them that it was God’s basic design flaw that ensured that every paper cup discarded between the border and Empire Falls would likely wash up on C. B. Whiting’s future lawn. That was the bad news.

The good news was that it didn’t have to be that way. Men of vision had been improving on God’s designs for the better part of two centuries, and there was no reason not to correct this one. If the Army Corps of Engineers could make the damn Mississippi run where they wanted it to, a pissant stream like the Knox could be altered at their whim. In no time they arrived at a plan. A few miles north and east of Empire Falls the river took a sharp, unreasonable turn before meandering back in the direction it had come from for several sluggish, twisting miles, much of its volume draining off into swampy lowlands north and west of town where legions of black flies bred each spring, followed by an equal number of mosquitos in the summer. Seen from the air, the absurdity of this became clear. What water wanted to do, the engineers explained, was flow downhill by the straightest possible route. Meandering was what happened when a river’s best intentions were somehow thwarted. What prevented the Knox from running straight and true was a narrow strip of land – of rock, really – referred to by the locals as the Robideaux Blight, an outcropping of rolling, hummocky ground that might have been considered picturesque if your purpose was to build a summer home on the bluff overlooking the river and not farm it, as the land’s owners had been bullheadedly attempting to do for generations. In the end, of course, rivers get their way, and eventually – say in a few thousand years – the Knox would succeed in cutting its way through the meander.

C. B. Whiting was disinclined to wait, and he was buoyed to learn from his engineers that if the money could be found to blast a channel through the narrowest part of the Robideaux Blight, the river should be running straight and true within the calendar year, its increased velocity downstream at Whiting’s Bend sufficient to bear off the vast majority of trash (including the odd moose), downstream to the dam in Fairhaven, where it belonged. In fact, C. B. Whiting’s experts argued before the state in hastily convened, closed-door hearings that the Knox would be a far better river – swifter, prettier, cleaner – for all the communities along its banks. Further, with less of its volume being siphoned off into the wetlands, the state would benefit from the acquisition of several thousand acres of land that might be used for purposes other than breeding bugs. No real environmental movement in the state of Maine would exist for decades, so there was little serious opposition to the plan, though the experts did concede – their voices low and confidential now – that a livelier river might occasionally prove too lively. The Knox, like most rivers in Maine, was already prone to flooding, especially in the spring, when warm rains melted the northern snowpack too quickly.

[…]

The dynamiting of the Robideaux Blight some seven miles upstream could be felt all the way to Empire Falls, and on the day in August when the blasting was complete C. B. Whiting knelt on the riverbank before his newly completed house and watched with pride as the freshly energized currents bore off what little remained of the moose, along the with the ever-increasing mound of milk cartons, plastic bottles and rusted soup cans, all bobbing their way south toward and unsuspecting Fairhaven. The river no longer whispered despair as it had earlier in the summer. Reenergized, it fairly chortled with glee at his enterprise.  

A hundred and sixty-three pages into the story through, we learn that the earlier efforts were not a success. Grace Roby (C. B. Whiting’s widow) states: 

“… what he [C. B. Whiting] was up to when I met him . He was actually engaged in altering the flow of this very river. Spent a small fortune dynamiting channels and building guide walls and levees upstream, not to mention bribing state officials to allow all of this, simply so trash wouldn’t collect along our bank. He died imagining he’d succeeded, too, so how’s that for folly?”

[…]

“But now the river’s gone back to doing what it wants, and what it wants is to wash up dead animals and all manner of trash on my nice lawn. That’s the lovely odor you noticed when you sat down. Which is my point. Lives are rivers. We imagine we can direct their paths, though in the end there’s but one destination, and end up being true to ourselves only because we have no choice.”  

Then, nearing the end of the book, there are a couple of mentions of the “Knox River Restoration Project.” It’s a redevelopment project that’s not fully explained, though we get a sense for it when a character states:

“You wouldn’t believe what’s going on down by the river. The new brew pub’s going to open by the Fourth of July. The credit-card company’s sunk millions into the renovating the old mill. The shirt factory’s going to be an indoor mini-mall.”  

In a nod to symmetry, on the final pages of the novel’s epilogue the river returns:

…his [C. B. Whiting’s] engineers warned him that dynamiting the Robideaux Blight and cutting a new channel might increase the severity of floods, to which the river was already prone. In fact, afterward the river did become less manageable, though none of its previous floods came close to matching the one that occurred [that spring] […]. More snow had fallen that winter than the previous three combined, and when an early thaw came that first week in April – temperatures reaching into the seventies all the way to Canada – the snow melted in torrents and the Knox River roared through Empire Falls ten feet above flood stage, halfway up the tall first-floor windows of the old textile mill, which was in the process of being converted to a brew pub on the ground floor and the lavish offices of a credit card company above. At the river’s crest, half of downtown was underwater […] 

I apologize if this spoils the ending for anyone, or leaves you the impression that Empire Falls is all about rivers. The fictional Knox River’s cameos take up no more than a dozen pages of the book. It’s just a small thread of a sub-plot that I enjoyed.  I especially like the way that, in the long run, nature (both senses of the word: the environment and the way things are) resists human impulses toward control.

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§ 3 Responses to Hydrology in Richard Russo’s Empire Falls

  • Save Sutro says:

    Interesting story… I wonder if it’s an actual story of an actual river, or at least based on one?

    • Joe Linton says:

      I poked around on that, and there’s no Knox River in Maine. There’s a Fort Knox which is on the Penobscot River. I have no idea if the fictional river’s story is based on any specific one, though it rings fairly true to me.

  • Eric Lewis says:

    it may be fictional but a story of what life mighta been way back..the girls name Tic might have been taken from the Tic walking bridge,if u go on google earth,u can see a lot of the images in and around waterville and Skowhegan.,lots of trivia spots,I;d like to know the exact spot where that empire falls diner was at..will keep lookin on google earth in my spare time

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