EMPIRE FALLS *

By Richard Russo

Knopf. 483 pp. $25.95

Stay with Miles Roby long enough and you can't miss the integrity, reliability, kindness and thoughtfulness that make him such a decent human being. In the short run, though, these qualities are likely to be obscured by truckloads of inertia, risk-aversion and general bloodlessness. Most folks in little Empire Falls in central Maine admire Roby, who runs the local diner, but they sense that some vital spark is missing in him. Despite 20 years of marriage, his wife, Janine, is so put off by her husband's malaise that she's left him for a sexy, muscled, fitness-club entrepreneur.

Like his hometown, the protagonist of Richard Russo's latest novel, Empire Falls, seems battered and gun-shy, maybe even doomed for the scrap heap. Empire Falls -- a generation ago the thriving base of a timber and textile company -- is now blemished by abandoned factories and boarded-up stores. Once-mighty Whiting Enterprises has been reduced to an elderly widowed termagant, Mrs. Whiting, with a grown daughter, Cindy, warehoused in a distant mental hospital. The townspeople, deprived of good jobs, bereft of hope, make do on bitterness and regret.

This is the blue-collar, rust-belt territory the author has depicted so knowingly and sympathetically in Mohawk, The Risk Pool and, especially, Nobody's Fool. His previous novel, Straight Man, a hilarious academic satire, was the sole exception. But whether poking fun at time-serving professors or exposing the underside of American capitalism, Russo writes with a warm, vibrant humanity. His fakers and screwups aren't merely stick figures to make debating points but flesh-and-blood people who surprise us at every misadventure. William Henry Devereaux Jr., his wisecracking English professor in Straight Man, stumbled into one self-created mess after another. Even more memorable, Donald Sullivan of Nobody's Fool was as much a creation of his own mistakes as a victim of monolithic economic forces.

It takes longer for the quieter, less robust Miles Roby to register in our consciousness. He's not as over-the-top silly as Hank, as endearingly self-sabotaging as Sully. He's a puzzle, we recognize, and some assembly is required. Russo's painstaking handling of these complications of character pushes the novel into far more subtle fictional territory, I suspect, than he originally imagined.

I say that because the prologue points the novel in another, almost cartoonish direction. Here the focus is not on Miles at all but on C.B. Whiting, the reluctant scion (he'd rather be a poet living in Mexico), whose eventual suicide makes his wife a widow. The tone, a{grv} la John Irving, is at once cutesy and portentous, unlike the rest of the book. Russo writes that Whiting men "invariably married women who made their lives a misery." It was their "particular curse . . . that their wives remained loyal to them out of spite." Hence the husbands' desire to kill. C.B., who represented the end of the line, turned his homicidal urges on himself.

Owning virtually all of Empire Falls, including the diner where Miles daily presides, the Whitings have set the town's agenda. And it is the formidable Mrs. Whiting who understands Miles better than he does himself. A parvenue raised from poverty by a Bowdoin education and an advantageous marriage, she is wont to lecture him on his failings. "People confuse power with will," she tells him, "because so few of them have the foggiest idea what they want. Absent any knowledge, will remains impotent."

Aside from remaining close with his beloved daughter, 16-year-old Tick, the impotent, befogged Miles is clueless about what to do with the rest of his life. At 42, he debates whether to petition Mrs. Whiting for a liquor license (the only way to make the diner profitable), whether to chuck it all and start anew as a bookseller on Martha's Vineyard (a pipe dream, it seems), even whether to overcome his fear of heights and paint the steeple at St. Catherine's Church (a benevolence this devoted Catholic has offered without pay).

Miles's diner crossroads affords Russo a wide-angle view of the entire community, from powers temporal (Mrs. Whiting and Jimmy Minty, a cop from the wrong side of the tracks) to powers spiritual (Miles's confidant, Father Mark, and dotty old Father Tom). Within Miles's family -- Tick; his father, Max; late mother, Grace; and brother, David -- the author produces a stirring mix of poignancy, drama and comedy. Tick's teenage world is unsettling and precarious. Max, retired from everything but boozing and mischief-making, is at once exasperating ne'er-do-well and comic relief. Grace, whose death from cancer long ago forced Miles to drop out of college, was as selfless as Max is selfish. In this regard, David reminds him, Miles remains too much his mother's son.

Richard Russo layers these tangled relationships into a richly satisfying portrait of a man within a defining community. Not a stylist, the author seems determined to subordinate style to honest and compassionate storytelling. That Empire Falls resonates so deeply is a measure of its unexpected truths. *

Dan Cryer is a book critic at Newsday.