Mas­ter of home truths

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Frank Camp­bell

PULITZER prize- win­ner Richard Russo ob­serves small- town Amer­ica with sym­pa­thy shorn of sen­ti­men­tal­ity: Gar­ri­son Keil­lor with teeth. Russo, 58, grew up in the con­tigu­ous in­dus­trial towns of John­stown and Gloversville in up­state New York, just as they be­gan to die.

John­stown ( Thomas­ton in the book) re­lied on its tan­nery; Gloversville made one- third of the world’s gloves. Their pros­per­ity poi­soned the river, which ran in var­i­ous pri­mary colours de­pend­ing on the day of the week. So many gloves, so many can­cers. Bridge of Sighs is a hu­mor­ous book laced with ma­lig­nancy.

Russo is tagged a re­gional writer, one who evokes a po­tent sense of place. True, but as he says him­self, class de­fines small- town lives as much as the va­garies of ge­og­ra­phy. Thomas­ton has four zones: the blue- col­lar West End, the lower mid­dle- class East End and the pocket Bor­ough where the town’s puny wealth re­sides. Fi­nally there’s the ir­rel­e­vant Hill, where the black towns­folk live, maybe 2 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion. Di­vi­sion Street is the chief bound­ary be­tween the East and West Ends. Cryp­tic it isn’t.

Hav­ing swiftly erected the so­ci­o­log­i­cal scaf­fold­ing, Russo’s acer­bic, sham­bling, boozy cast of char­ac­ters emerge to clam­ber all over it. Some climb, some fall, but most grimly hang on to where they’re at: too risky to move.

The great en­gine of so­cial mo­bil­ity is run­ning on empty in Thomas­ton.

One may think from this in­tro­duc­tion that Bridge of Sighs is a Sin­clair Lewis- Up­ton Sin­clair po­lit­i­cal satire, the in­ex­orable play­ing out of great eco­nomic forces with the masses as ex­tras. Not at all. This book is a three- fam­ily drama spread across 60 years. Fam­i­lies hold the town to­gether. They sac­ri­fice other pos­si­ble fu­tures. It’s a novel about en­trap­ment, but Russo knows that leav­ing or stay­ing are fraught de­ci­sions and that nei­ther is nec­es­sar­ily wise.

Hori­zons are lim­ited in this rust- belt val­ley. The cham­ber of com­merce is in per­ma­nent de­nial, but peo­ple have to deal with the crappy hand fate has dealt them. How much choice they have de­pends on the risks they’re pre­pared to take. Only Bobby Mar­coni breaks out suc­cess­fully, beat­ing up his bru­tal fa­ther, chang­ing his name and be­com­ing a fa­mous artist in Venice. He’s cut off for 40 years from his boy­hood friends Lou Lynch and Sarah Berg, who never leave the state. Bobby’s ever- preg­nant mother keeps flee­ing, only to be caught and dragged back by her vig­i­lant hus­band. Sarah’s half- crazed fa­ther, a high school English teacher, sub­verts his pro­vin­cial pupils while writ­ing the great Amer­i­can novel, a 1500- page ex­pose of Thomas­ton enig­mat­i­cally ti­tled Tan­nersville. He burns this truck­load of ver­biage af­ter pub­lish­ers’ form let­ters re­gret that it doesn’t quite suit their lists ‘‘ at this time’’. Sacked for drug use, he dies in Albany with­out hav­ing en­tered New York City in lit­er­ary tri­umph. Russo is such a card, isn’t he?

Fact is, New York City ( just a short train ride away) hardly cracks a men­tion. It’s be­yond the Thomas­to­nian hori­zon.

Peo­ple are trapped as much by nos­tal­gia as by eco­nomic cir­cum­stance or fear of the un­known. It’s the ge­nius of Russo to show that nos­tal­gia is not sim­ply the roseate glow of a shared past that ropes the flawed, timid denizens of Tan­nery Row to­gether. Nos­tal­gia in­cludes the pain, hor­ror and nas­ti­ness of the past as well. Lou C. Lynch is bul­lied at school and ridiculed for his life­long gorm­less af­fa­bil­ity, as his fa­ther was be­fore him. He’s a soft and ir­re­sistible tar­get for the town’s pent- up spite. Yet ‘‘ Lucy’’ loves his home town and for­gives his tor­men­tors.

Speak­ing of ad­dic­tion, it must be said that Russo’s nearly 300,000 words are ex­ces­sive. As with soap opera, one is swept along by the daily drama of vi­car­i­ous fam­ily life. The over­lap and rep­e­ti­tion of the do­ings of his hand­ful of char­ac­ters form a dense thicket. Like­wise, some of the res­o­lu­tions are un­con­vinc­ing. Why would can­cer- stricken Sarah dump kindly Lou af­ter 40 years of ap­par­ent con­tent­ment? And Russo’s ad hoc in­tro­duc­tion of black char­ac­ters is min­stre­lesque car­i­ca­ture. Whites don’t mix so­cially with blacks in small- town Amer­ica. Russo un­wit­tingly ex­poses the lim­its of his ex­pe­ri­ence.

Once a col­lege English teacher, Russo has writ­ten six nov­els in the past 20 years, in­clud­ing Mo­hawk, The Risk Pool , No­body’s Fool ( filmed with Paul New­man) and Em­pire Falls . His first ( Mo­hawk) was re­jected by a score of pub­lish­ers. Bridge of Sighs finds him in fine form, though one waspish critic ( prob­a­bly from Staten Is­land) back­handed him with ‘‘ no one does up­state New York like Russo’’. Truth is, Russo knows that the hu­man con­di­tion is re­vealed best close to home.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jock Alexan­der

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