Bridge of Sighs
Release date: 09/01/2007
Reviewed by Jeffrey Frank
Richard 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 (Mohawk ; The 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.