In many ways, the first step of great fiction is identical to the most widely followed rule of real estate: location, location, location. Novelist Richard Russo staked his claim to New England with his first novel, Mohawk, and he hasn't left the area yet. (Not counting the rural Pennsylvania setting of his last book, Straight Man, which seems close enough.) Russo loves the clash of class and the colorful characters of the northeast, where the business, wilderness, and mythic personality of Old America stubbornly holds on in spite of the modernity, modularity, and reality of New America. Empire Falls, his fifth book, features strained relationships and screwball situations that should be familiar to any Russo fan, but it's also steeped in an almost subliminal sadness that, as the novel progresses, develops into horror, then rage, and ultimately resignation. A major clue to Russo's goals lies in the multiple meanings of the novel's title, which not only designates the small-town Maine setting, but also the author's ambitious intent to illustrate the traumatic transition of America itself, from changing economic issues (beginning with the rise and fall of a textile mill and its millionaire benefactors) to personal matters. Empire Falls also focuses on the dissolution and disillusion of the American family, and the futile but comforting lies people tell themselves even as things fall apart. A careful study of diametrical and generational opposites, Empire Falls finds power in an abundance of related opposites: parent and child, rich and poor, past and present, faith and incredulity, thought and action, honesty and deception. Russo makes these relationships apparent through a sprawling cast of perfectly calibrated characters. At the center is Miles Roby, a well-meaning pushover who prefers the illusion of stability over conflict, but the real fulcrum of the story is Mrs. Francine Whiting, a Miss Havisham-like harridan whose grip on the town extends far beyond the financial realm. Her life story holds the keys to the book's many secrets, but Russo deftly keeps the details hidden until the last pages, where all the pent-up regret, anger, and clouded intentions come pouring out in a flood of emotions and devastating answers. Russo always knows how to mix humor and tragedy, but the balance has never seemed better realized or more moving.