Empire Falls by Richard Russo: A Literary Soundtrack

Empire Falls by Richard Russo is one of my favorite contemporary novels by one of my favorite contemporary authors. It’s one of the novels I love so much that I can’t actually articulate why I love it. As an alternative for a review, synopsis, or anything of the like, I decided to create a soundtrack for the book. I can’t be the only one who reads a book and sets it (mentally) to music…right?

Empire Falls

Please note with the literary soundtrack series (do two posts make a series?) that quite a bit of this is intended to be playful and irreverent. I’m rarely serious and this is no exception. Because really, do I believe that Empire Falls (which won the Pulitzer Prize) should feature both The Stooges and Van Halen? No, probably not, but they’re on my soundtrack nonetheless…

1. The Lumineers – Stubborn Love

By nature you instinctively seek out the middle road, mid-way between dangerous passion and soul-destroying indifference. Your whole adult life has been a study in deft navigation, and I don’t mind telling you I’ve long admired the way you’ve charted your course. You chastise yourself – and don’t pretend you don’t, because I won’t believe you – for making a poor marriage, but that’s foolishness. You merely saved yourself, and self-preservation is the design feature we all have in common.

2. Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan – Come Undone

She gave him a smile in which hope and knowledge were going at it, bare-knuckled, equally and eternally matched. There was a God after all, Miles concluded, as he took his leave of her. The misery was His plan for us.

3. Timber Timbre – Lonesome Hunter

After all, what was the whole wide world but a place for people to yearn for their heart’s impossible desires, for those desires to become entrenched in defiance of logic, plausibility, and even the passage of time, as eternal as polished marble.

4. Nirvana – You Know You’re Right (admittedly this song is not quite right, but if I’m going with the theme of choosing between wrong, more wrong, and as wrong as you can get, I might as well choose one I like)

Of course, the other possibility was that there was no right thing to say, that the choice wasn’t between right and wrong but between wrong, more wrong, and as wrong as you can get. Wrong, all of it, to one degree or another, by definition, or by virtue of the fact that Miles himself was the one saying it.

5. My Morning Jacket – I’m Amazed

Miles couldn’t help admiring women for their ability to dismiss the evidence of their senses. If that’s what explained it. If it wasn’t simply that from time to time they were unaccountably drawn to the grotesque…

6. The Stooges – I Wanna Be Your Dog

To his surprise, she leaned over and kissed him on the forehead, a kiss so full of affection that it dispelled the awkwardness, even as it caused Miles’ heart to plummet, because all kisses are calibrated, and this one revealed the great chasm between affection and love.

7. Johnny Nash – I Can See Clearly Now

Not giving a shit, she decided, is like the defrost option on a car’s heater that miraculously unfogs the windshield, allowing you to see where you’re headed.

8. Van Halen – Why Can’t This Be Love?

This was just one more way, Miles supposed, that his own marriage had fallen short. He and Janine had always had trouble making themselves understood to each other, even when they spoke in complete paragraphs. It was Janine’s position that if they hadn’t fucked that dozen times or so, there would’ve been no reason for them to go through the motions of divorce. They could have had the marriage annulled, the church’s acknowledgement that in twenty years no intercourse of any significance, sexual or even verbal, had taken place between them.

9. Bob Dylan – I Want You

How in the world, she wanted to know, had she managed to put into a situation where the person she most wanted to unburden her soul to was the man she couldn’t wait to leave so she’d be free to create the mess? These were all ironies, no doubt about it, and she hated every one of the fuckers

So should I keep this series? Yes, no, maybe? I won’t be offended no matter the opinion and I’m genuinely curious (and if I am offended I’ll keep it to myself). Either way, I’ll likely keep doing it – as it happens in my head, so I can’t exactly stop – but I could stop posting it and stick strictly to all things bookish. Or, if none of that strikes your fancy, you could tell me something funny, because my day wasn’t great and tomorrow’s not looking any better. My co-worker is choosing the music – the library’s closed to the public for the day – and it will probably involve Enya. And Kelly Clarkson. This is my roundabout way of telling you to say hi.

If you’re an Empire Falls fan, are there any pivotal scenes I missed? Because if I had a song for the banty little rooster scene, I totally would’ve posted it.

20 thoughts on “Empire Falls by Richard Russo: A Literary Soundtrack

  1. I’ve never thought about a soundtrack to the books I read. Maybe it’s from teaching music all day, my brain is like, enough! hahaha Fun idea though. Enjoyed this post!


    1. Thanks. I work in the quiet all day, so maybe my preference for music is a result of that…

      I’m a visual reader, if that makes sense. Books I read tend to look like movies in my head, complete with soundtracks and interior design preferences.


    1. Thanks, it is one of my favorite contemporary novels. This, along with White Oleander, is one of the books that I feel solidified my love of reading as a young adult. Not everything I read has a mental soundtrack, just the good stuff.


  2. I bought this one at a library book sale this year but haven’t read it yet. I remembered you saying that it’s one of your favorites, so I can’t wait to read it. Soon.


    1. It’s probably one of my top ten books off all time. I was re-skimming through it to look at my notes for this post and I had forgotten how funny it is. So yes, the sooner the better!


    1. I’d like to, I’m glad the consensus isn’t to skip it. Writing only traditional reviews gets a little exhausting sometimes (or boring, at the very least, and I’m not a huge fan of memes).

      And yes, read it!


  3. I like them, it makes for a unique review and for someone who is more musically inclined this is a great way to perhaps spark a reading interest. Definitely continue with it! Oh I just love Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now”. It would be included in the soundtrack of my life to note those moments of revelation and clarity that finally come to light.

    I’d prefer Enya and Kelly Clarkson to the Christian music which my co-worker plays. Not that I have anything against Christian music but these things I like on my terms, so even if I’m not particularly wanting to listen to music I will plug into Pandora and crank it up loudly.


    1. I really want to make a soundtrack for my life. I already have some of the songs picked out: The Who – Behind Blue Eyes, Leonard Cohen – I’m Your Man, Tracy Chapman – Give Me One Reason, REM – Losing My Religion, Velvet Underground – Pale Blue Eyes, Bob Dylan – Shelter from the Storm, Lucinda Williams – Righteously, Metallica – Nothing Else Matters, Joan Jett – I Hate Myself For Loving You. Hmmm…this could be fun, maybe Otis Redding – Hard to Handle, Morphine – All Wrong (or maybe I’m Free Now), Nirvana – Heart-Shaped Box. There would be more, of course (maybe around 30?), those are just the ones that have had some sort of profound influence on my life that I can think of right at this very moment.

      The Enya is killing me, although to be fair, Christian music would be worse. I don’t have anything against it either, I just really don’t like it. I’m sure there’s an exception, I just haven’t found it yet. Yesterday, I brought headphones. It was a glorious relief.


  4. Okay, funny story… and it’s even tangentially related…

    First, it should be noted that I love Van Halen. Classic rock in general counts for a lot of my favorite music, but if I had to pick one band from that era, Van Halen would be it.

    So my husband and I were at a holiday dinner for his company a few years back. I am terrible at these things; I’m socially awkward enough around people I already know, and this was a room full of probably a hundred people, and the only person I’d ever met before was the one I came with.

    Despite this, the couple that we ended up sitting with were nice, and I got the point where I could actually contribute a few words to the conversation now and then. This couple was about 10 years older than we were, and the age difference sort of dominated the discussion for a while. They were guessing we were younger than we really were (we both used to get that a lot… still do…) and trying to get us to guess how old they were (which I refused, because I’m absolutely terrible at estimating people’s ages and didn’t want to offend…)

    Anyway, later the topic of music came up. I don’t remember exactly how the conversation went, but what I do remember was when the wife mentioned Van Halen, saying, “You two probably don’t even know who that is,” and I responded indignantly, “Of course I know who Van Halen is…” (and of course I should have just left it at that, but my social awkwardness reared its ugly head, and even though I knew it was a mistake as I was saying it, I still couldn’t stop the next words from coming out) “…my parents used to listen to them all the time!”


    1. I love stories, tangentially related of not!

      I like Van Halen too, my classic rock preferences includes ZZ Top, The Who, Lynyrd Skynyrd, CCR, The Kinks, Aerosmith, etc. Essentially anything but REO Speedwagon or The Pretenders (the latter of which I get irritable even hearing).

      And that’s not awkward. That’s awesome. It’s sort of a take that for the “You two probably don’t even know who that is” is comment, even if it was unintentional. I hate getting that, especially about music or films. Just because I didn’t live through Van Halen’s heyday doesn’t mean I don’t know who they are. People assume I’m WAY younger than I am, sometimes it’s ridiculous. It’s actually why I dress up more frequently, when I dress down, people assume I’m a teenager (i.e. I can’t get in to a rated R movie if I forget my ID).


  5. I love it when you do music posts. You have the best taste in 90s music, and introduce me to stuff I’ll actually LIKE that’s more recent. I kind of stopped paying attention to music after high school, so you’re saving me from my own stodgy self. It’s like getting a mix tape to listen to with the book. LOVE and LOVE and LOOOOOVE!


    1. Thank you. I still love my high school music too, even when it’s bad (like Lovefool, I STILL love that song). I used to want to be Nina Persson (The Cardigan’s lead singer). This just goes to show that you should not be judged on your teenage self.

      And I’ll be around to rescue you from the ’90’s should you ever need it. I always wanted to be a superhero.


    1. I can’t get mad. The Book Thief still looks beautiful sitting unread on my shelf, but Mateship With Birds is coming up soon (at least).

      I don’t know what you should read first: Tell the Wolves I’m Home or Empire Falls…


  6. You know, I had this book on my shelf for a really long time and never read it and then gave it away when I moved (well, donated). Of course, now that I DON’T have it, someone (you) talks about how great it is.

    I guess I’ll have to scour the used bookstores to find it again.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: