By Bruce Fretts
Updated May 18, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Richard Russo may be best known as the author of Nobody’s Fool, the small-town novel that became the basis of the sweet-souled 1994 Paul Newman movie. Like Fool, two of Russo’s other previous works (Mohawk and The Risk Pool) were set in upstate New York, while his last book, the academic satire Straight Man, took place in western Pennsylvania. With Empire Falls, the writer heads north to Maine, where the weather — and the characters — are colder.

Russo paints a vividly stark portrait of life in a contemporary ghost town. Empire Avenue was once a bustling thoroughfare, but ”now, of course, you could strafe it with automatic weapons and not harm a soul.” Much of the action takes place around the Empire Grill, a run-down diner that’s a kind of anti-Cheers: It’s a place where everybody knows your name, but you wish they didn’t.

Proprietor Miles Roby (or ”the Human Rut,” as his bitter ex-wife Janine dubs him) is a 42-year-old sad sack who dropped out of college intending to run the joint for only a few years. As the local factories shut down around him, Miles has waited for town oligarch Francine Whiting to deliver on her promise to transfer ownership of the restaurant to him. All the while, he’s had to deal with annoying customers like Walt Comeau, a 60-year-old health club owner who drives a van with his nickname, ”The Silver Fox,” emblazoned on the hood — and who, incidentally, stole Janine away from Miles.

Empire Falls is dense in the best sense of the word. Chapters set in the present are interspersed with italicized flashbacks tracing the tragically intertwined histories of the Whiting and Roby families. Each paragraph is packed with concise, precise phrases, and hardly a word is wasted in 483 pages. Even within a single era, the story line spans generations, as Russo shows a keen understanding of teen life through the character of Tick Roby, Miles’ high school sophomore daughter. She develops scoliosis from carrying too many books (”kids today stuffed the entire contents of their lockers into their seam-stretched backpacks”), a metaphor Russo uses to illustrate the emotional baggage of her parents’ divorce.

Such powerfully heavy symbols permeate Empire Falls. Miles volunteers to paint his Catholic church, but a sudden fear of heights prevents him from climbing to the top of the steeple; this is a man who’s been beaten down so low he’s afraid to reach too high. Occasionally, Russo’s imagery collapses under its own weightiness: Francine Whiting’s husband, C.B., spends a fortune unsuccessfully attempting to change a river’s course so that ”all manner of other people’s s — -” won’t wash up on his mansion’s lawn. ”Lives are rivers,” Francine observes, a bit too literally. ”We imagine we can direct their paths, though in the end there’s but one destination.”

This grim determinism extends into the arena of male-female relationships. The Whiting men ”invariably gravitated, like moths to a flame, toward the one woman in the world who would regard making them utterly miserable as her life’s noble endeavor,” Russo writes. Miles doesn’t have better luck: In his 20-year marriage to Janine, ”no intercourse of any significance, sexual or even verbal, had taken place between them.” Empire Falls‘ depiction of women might seem misogynistic were its harridans not balanced out by beacons of female virtue, like Miles’ saintly mother, Grace. (A few more distaff characters who fall in the middle of the moral spectrum might not have hurt, however.)

Russo’s wit helps saves the novel from sinking into cynicism. His one-liners can make you laugh out loud (”Tick now considered herself an agnostic, a philosophical position that allowed her to sleep in on Sunday mornings”). Then he can turn around and break your heart with a perfectly observed moment (when Miles told Tick of her parents’ impending split, ”his daughter’s greatest need had seemed to be for him to stop talking”).

Despite an almost perverse penchant for allowing many of the story’s most dramatic events (a wedding, the discovery of a corpse) to occur between chapters, Russo keeps readers riveted by the sheer force of his language. Even after an act of horrific violence makes the book seem luridly topical in its final chapters, you stick with it, because you care about these dead-end characters.

”Ambition…it’ll kill you every time,” one townie warns his son. Yet with this deeply ambitious book, Richard Russo has found new life as a writer. B+