If you’ve read one Richard Russo novel, you’ve essentially read them all. And while that might seem like an insult to a lesser author (or Coldplay), Russo’s books are like your favorite meal — you can eat it twice a week until you’re gumming it in your old age and never tire of it. Russo’s novels, like an Altman film, are comfortably meandering — you don’t know where you’re going and you don’t really care; it’s enough that you’re riding in a sidecar with Russo’s calm, restful voice. I’ve read everything Russo has ever written, but I don’t think I could tell you which character, setting, or plotline belongs to which book. In fact, but for the surprising end of Empire Falls, there are no situations in his oeuvre that I can even vividly recollect. They are all about salt-of-the earth blue-collar characters (though, Straight Man, I believe, concerns salt-of-the-earth academics), who live in small, interchangeable dying one-industry towns in the Northeast and who are experiencing family problems. All the major characters tend speak idiomatically, but they are never clichéd, and you could trade characters from one novel to another like baseball cards, but I doubt it do much to dampen the sprawling enjoyment. And, since all his novels are 500 or 600 pages long, it’s a reading experience you can draw out for days or weeks; there’s never any hurry to get to the end — one page is just as easy-going and rich as another.
Russo’s latest, A Bridge of Sighs, takes place in Thomaston, N.Y., a town dying decades after the big-metaphor, cancer-causing tannery has left town. The novel’s main character is Lou “Lucy” Lynch, a 60-year-old man indefatigably set in his ways who is about to embark on a trip to Europe with his junior-high sweetheart and wife, Sarah. Lucy owns and operates three convenience stores in Thomaston, and is readying himself to hand them — his life’s accomplishments — over to his son, Owen, who is experiencing marital difficulties. But before he heads to Italy, Lucy — another one of Russo’s fascinatingly dull characters — decides to chronicle his memoirs, to stand in both as a history of himself and of the town.
It starts with his parents: Lucy’s father, Big Lou, was a genial, trusting-to-a-fault milkman who loses his job to small-town evolution (and an A & P grocery store) and takes the biggest — and only — risk of his life when he mortgages his house to buy a failing corner store, which itself is on the verge of shuttering its doors, thanks again to that damned A & P. Lucy’s mother is a less-trusting, shrewd woman who is also the novel’s major source of wisdom (predictably, the elder matrons in Russo’s book also tend to be the most sage). As a middle-schooler, the one event that seems to shape Lucy’s life the most is the time that a group of bullies took him out in the middle of the woods near a bridge and locked him in a wooden crate near a railroad trestle — the ordeal becomes responsible for the spells that plague Lucy for the rest of his life.
Meanwhile, Lucy’s best friend, Bobby Marconi, is a philandering painter who escaped Thomaston and resides in Italy now; his accounts of growing up in Thomaston are far less fond. His father was an asshole, his mother was weak-willed and perpetually pregnant, and his friendship with Lucy was more of a burden than anything else. Bobby and Lucy’s relationship is tied together by their mutual love of Sarah, who eventually has to make a decision about who she wants to spend her life with — the safe or the sexy choice. There’s little mystery in who she chooses nor the reasons why she makes the decision, but that takes little away from the exploration of her motives. Unfortunately, the last few chapters — when an elderly black woman enters the story from stage what-the-fuck? — are slightly disappointing only in that they don’t naturally follow from many plot strands or take advantage of the array of colorful local characters already depicted, but it doesn’t detract much from the overall pleasure of reading another one of Russo’s gems.
And, a week after you put it down, it’ll all meld into the rest of Russo’s oeuvre — strong female characters; intricately woven plots; thoroughly explored father-son relationships; blue-collar struggle; effortless prose; and the one overriding theme in his entire body of work: the plight of small-town America. There aren’t many authors left writing about this bit of Americana, but with Russo, there’s little need for anyone else.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo / Dustin Rowles
Books | November 6, 2007 | Comments ()