Master of home truths
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.