On Richard Russo's last day on the job, in his final summer doing manual labor during college breaks, one of the carpenters on his crew told him, “Have a good life. You're going to go out and do other things, and you're going to forget about guys like us.” That's how Russo remembers it now, decades later, as we sit talking in his comfortable home in Camden, Maine. The story is part of how he defines himself, and for good reason. He and his readers know he owes his career—the Pulitzer Prize, the bestsellers, the successful screenplays—to the fact that he didn't forget guys like that carpenter.
With his new novel, Bridge of Sighs (Knopf), Russo once again returns to the small-town, working-class culture portrayed in his previous books, including Nobody's Fool and the 2002 Pulitzer-winning Empire Falls (both of which were adapted for film, with Russo writing the screenplays). At the heart of the story is a triangle involving a man with the unfortunate nickname “Lucy”; his wife, Sarah; and Lucy's best friend Bobby, who all grow up together in the fictional upstate New York factory town of Thomaston. Like the settings for Russo's previous books, Thomaston evokes Gloversville, Russo's real-life hometown in upstate New York.
“What you knew the first 21 years of your life, that's what you know. That's what you know to the marrow of your bones—the rest of it you've just been observing,” he explains. Still, the 58-year-old admits with a laugh, “I am aware of the fact that I haven't lifted anything really heavy in a long time. I have lower back problems now and my credentials aren't as current as when I was lifting heavy objects with my father.”
So he's not working-class anymore. But small-town life still suits him. Russo's house sits on a busy street that leads visitors in and out of Camden's quaint, upscale downtown. It's a short walk away from the local eateries where he goes to write many mornings and where everyone knows him just as “Rick.” Nearby is a nonprofit alternative high school where his wife of 35 years, Barbara, serves on the board of trustees. Russo often raises money for the school by doing readings and bringing in other big-name authors, says Joseph Barber, manager of Camden's the Owl & Turtle Bookshop.
“His wife is very active with the Community School, therefore Richard by default has to be very active in the Community School,” Barber says. Russo is a frequent customer at the Owl & Turtle and has done signings at the store. But while he's great in front of a crowd, he isn't big on seeking the spotlight, says Barber. “If someone offers to do an event to praise him, he won't do it unless it's for charity.”
It's the kind of comment people make a lot when describing Russo. “My grandmother would say he has a gutte neshome—a good soul,” says Nat Sobel, who has been Russo's agent since the mid-1980s, when he sold Russo's debut novel, Mohawk (Vintage, 1986), for an $8,500 advance, which Russo, by then the father of two young daughters, used to pay off his school debt. “He's a great daddy to his children; he's a great husband; he was a great son to his mother, who recently passed away,” adds Sobel. “When he won the Pulitzer, everyone was thrilled for him, because it showed that, hey, a good guy can win the game, too.”
Making It Look Easy
That Pulitzer, of course, means heightened attention for Bridge of Sighs, his first novel since Empire Falls (in between he published a collection of short stories, The Whore's Child). Much in the book is signature Russo—men drink and fight and sleep with other men's wives. The industry that sustained the town is dying. And while it is not, strictly speaking, a comic novel like StraightMan (Random House, 1997), Russo's well-known sense of humor shows through.
What is new, though, is a father-son relationship at the heart of the story involving characters much different from the appealing rogues familiar to Russo readers—think Sully in Nobody'sFool, famously portrayed by Paul Newman. Lucy and his father, Big Lou, are steady and optimistic, and loyal to each other, sometimes to a fault. You want to hug them, except when you want to shake them.
And structurally, Bridge of Sighs is the author's most complex book, told from multiple viewpoints, moving back and forth in time and taking side trips to settings as far away as Venice. Russo says he was four years and 600 pages into the novel when, in despair, he threw his manuscript on the mercy of his agent. He credits Sobel with telling him what he needed to do to rework it. “The task was huge, but it was all bite-size chunks,” Russo says. “And your job is to make it look like you knew what you were doing all along. And not let anyone see what an enormous pain in the ass it was to get it right.”
Making it look easy is important to Russo. He works hard at it. He describes his collaboration with Knopf editor Gary Fisketjon (who edited Bridge of Sighs, as well as Mohawk and EmpireFalls) as a “sentence to sentence, comma to comma” task that sometimes becomes a negotiation. “Our discussion is that I want it to be graceful, but perhaps not elegant. He is a very elegant writer and editor, so we always compromise. He's just a master at getting the clunk out of my clunky prose,” Russo says. “And then every once in a while he edits something that goes all the way to elegant and I say, 'wait a minute.' ”
The Incredible Chutzpah
The afternoon I visit, Russo's daughters are in from out of town with their fiancés. Russo tells me that his wife and daughters are planning to go wedding dress shopping in Boston the next day. He is obviously happy to have them visiting. But it's a sad time, too, less than two weeks since his 85-year-old mother died. She had lived near her son, an only child, for years, most recently just 10 blocks away in Camden. She was a daily presence in his life and a reminder both of where he came from and of how tough it is to get old in a world that is changing so fast.
I've taken up the bulk of his afternoon and clearly intend to consume more when he gently mentions that he has some family obligations and probably should wrap things up within the next hour. I can tell he can't really spare the time but wants to be a good host. When he apologetically explains that he has until tomorrow to move his mother's things out of her home, I decide I only need a few more minutes. He looks relieved.
I ask what his mother thought of his work. “She could see her son and his wife in the audience at the Emmys—there was a way in which she was never quite able to process that,” he says. “And it worried her when I gave up teaching [at Colby College]. As a woman who had worked hard all her life and who had lived paycheck to paycheck all her life, the incredible chutzpah that you would surrender a weekly paycheck—that was hard for her to process.
“She was incredibly proud of all of it,” he continues, “but she found it hard to explain to people. And I don't blame her.”