Monday, October 18, 2010

Page 42: Bridge of Sighs

I am late to discover the great writing of Richard Russo.  I think Bridge of Sighs is one of his better novels.  This very complex novel is set in a small town in upstate New York north of Albany.  The story begins quite simply as an attempt by the main character to write down the events of his life before he and his wife embark on a trip to Italy.  Lou became known as Lucy every since his Kindergarten teacher made the mistake of reading his name as Lou C. Lynch.  You can pretty much surmise what happened after that.  The name stuck with him for the rest of his days.

Thomaston, NY is the fictional setting for the novel.  The other characters that play major roles are his parents, Big Lou and Teresa, Sarah Berg, Bobby Marconi, and his uncle Dec.  Lou and his father are the eternal optimists even though the stream running through town is loaded with carcinogens from the local tannery.  The town is divided by class (what town is not?) into four sections: The Hill (blacks), West End (poor whites), East End (middle class whites) and a separate section of new homes for wealthier whites.  The blacks are stuck in The Hill with no chance to move out so they remain as segregated in their housing as those in the south at the time.  Lou's parents have manage to avoid financial disaster when his father loses his job as a milkman.  They buy a local corner store, very much opposed by his mother, and have to depend on the meager income from that and his mother's work as a bookkeeper.

The book takes you back in forth in time, provides the perspectives of more than one character for the same event, and gives you new revelations that did not seem possible earlier in the story.  Part of the book is in Venice where Bobby has become a famous artist and is preparing for a show in New York.  He left Thomaston right after his senior year in high school thirty years before and has never returned.  A childhood trauma at the hands of local bullies has left Lou with "spells" that cause him to lose track of time and become listless until he recovers.  These last well into adulthood.

It may be difficult to track the story at times since it moves from Thomaston to Venice and then back again several times.  Also, the chronology is mixed so you have different characters giving their perception of the same event, but not in the same part of the novel.  In spite of this, Russo carries it off by giving us a great story with real characters who are both kind and flawed while others are downright mean and nasty.  The novel examines three main families: the Lynches, the Marconis, and the Bergs.  Their stories are interconnected and provide the wonderful material that makes this novel so great.

Here is a review by Jeffrey Frank:
From Publishers Weekly
"SignatureReviewed by Jeffrey FrankRichard Russo's portraits of smalltown life may be read not only as fine novels but as invaluable guides to the economic decline of the American Northeast. Russo was reared in Gloversville, N.Y. (which got its name from the gloves no longer manufactured there), and a lot of mid–20th-century Gloversville can be found in his earlier fiction (MohawkThe Risk Pool). It reappears in Bridge of Sighs, Russo's splendid chronicle of life in the hollowed-out town of Thomaston, N.Y., where a tannery's runoff is slowly spreading carcinogenic ruin.At the novel's center is Lou C. Lynch (his middle initial wins him the unfortunate, lasting nickname Lucy), but the narrative, which covers more than a half-century, also unfolds through the eyes of Lou's somewhat distant and tormented friend, Bobby Marconi, as well as Sarah Berg, a gifted artist who Lou marries and who loves Bobby, too. The lives of the Lynches, the Bergs and the Marconis intersect in various ways, few of them happy; each family has its share of woe. Lou's father, a genial milkman, is bound for obsolescence and leads his wife into a life of shopkeeping; Bobby's family is being damaged by an abusive father. Sarah moves between two parents: a schoolteacher father with grandiose literary dreams and a scandal in his past and a mother who lives in Long Island and leads a life that is far from exemplary. Russo weaves all of this together with great sureness, expertly planting clues—and explosives, too—knowing just when and how they will be discovered or detonate at the proper time. Incidents from youth—a savage beating, a misunderstood homosexual advance, a loveless seduction—have repercussions that last far into adulthood. Thomaston itself becomes a sort of extended family, whose unhappy members include the owners of the tannery who eventually face ruin.Bridge of Sighs is a melancholy book; the title refers to a painting that Bobby is making (he becomes a celebrated artist) and the Venetian landmark, but also to the sadness that pervades even the most contented lives. Lou, writing about himself and his dying, blue-collar town, thinks that the loss of a place isn't really so different from the loss of a person. Both disappear without permission, leaving the self diminished, in need of testimony and evidence. If there are false notes, they come with Russo's portrayal of African-Americans, who too often speak like stock characters: (Doan be given me that hairy eyeball like you doan believe, 'cause I know better, says one). But Russo has a deep and real understanding of stifled ambitions and the secrets people keep, sometimes forever. Bridge of Sighs, on every page, is largehearted, vividly populated and filled with life from America's recent, still vanishing past.Jeffrey Frank's books include The Columnist and Bad Publicity. His novel, Trudy Hopedale, was published in July by Simon & Schuster. 

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