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Book Review: Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo

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For much of Richard Russo’s writing career, personality trumps place. "I have to live in a place for a while before I can write about it," the novelist once maintained in an interview. "Sometimes I think I write more about class than I do about place, anyway … But the class stuff, writing about blue-collar folks, is something I've been doing right from the start … It's a world I know pretty well, and its people seem worth talking about to me."

Indeed, there is a fascination behind the faces worthy of study, starting with Russo's first novel, 1986’s Mohawk, where the off-kilter characters appear to take their cues from the same 1966 calendar at the local grill, whose owner figures the months are the same and being a few days off doesn't really matter. It's the same cavalier spirit that encroaches in the perversely winning but penetratingly witty Nobody’s Fool from 1993, wherein 60-year-old free-spirit Sully is soon out of money and out of luck, a situation triggering a series of personal and familial roll-with-the-punches obstructions of the woebegone kind.

The humor and compassion of Russo’s writing carries on into the 2002 Pulitzer Prize winner Empire Falls, which sees in its locale’s northward tilt a shift in keeping with the novelist's move to Maine from upstate New York, where he grew up and set his earliest works. But a primary focus remains on characterization, especially in the intricate interplay between Russo's large ensemble of primary and fully-fleshed secondary characters, culled from a cross section of citizenry representing the depressed New England mill town central to the novel.

Now Russo, in his rewarding sixth novel, the absorbing, bittersweet, and multi-faceted Bridge of Sighs, gives as much vent to a sense of place as he does to descriptive character and "class stuff." In an assured balancing act, the author masterfully reconciles and interweaves local color and social mobility with pertinent characterization as he plays a little temporal leapfrog throughout, and though he takes the book's overall setting back to a downbeat upstate New York to do it. Shall we draw any lessons from the actual Bridge of Sighs that led to the old prisons and that was regarded — at least legendarily — as the last view of scenic Venice (New England) that convicts saw before their imprisonment?

In any case, Bridge's Thomaston, New York, does manage to eke out its own lower-rung three-class social strata, each geographically set apart: the industrial and poor West End, and — divided by Division Street — the East End lower middle class. The third section — the Borough — is smaller by area and population, but "what little wealth we have is concentrated here." Together, however, each sector agrees to be in Chamber of Commerce-style denial about the town tannery's rising unemployment, economic decline, and runoff that is slowly spreading carcinogenic ruin.

There to chronicle much of Thomaston’s ups and downs, the familial upward mobility and personal downward spirals, is 60-year-old Lou C. Lynch (or as the nickname his middle initial has unfortunately saddled him with, Lucy), an unsophisticated, needy optimist writing a history of the town, his family, and friends — which includes his cryptic and aloof pal Bobby Marconi, who would become a celebrated expatriate artist. And which also includes Sarah Berg, an artist and teacher who also loves Bobby (reciprocating despite his thoughts of love as "the perfect recipe for disappointment and recrimination at the benign end of the emotional spectrum, homicide at the malignant end"), but who nevertheless marries Lou, "steadfast, slow, of movement, wit, and tongue … and yes, unfailingly kind."

The lives of the Lynches, the Bergs, and the Marconis interconnect and clash throughout a five-decade course of social and cultural history. Lou's amiable father is a milkman blind to the industry obsolescence headed his way, and then when he impulsively buys a corner market in times of rising A&P-dom, the success of his new career in shopkeeping is largely dependent on his wife’s new-found and innovative marketing and merchandising skills. Sarah divides her time between her divorced parents: a beatnik schoolteacher daddy-o with delusions of literary grandeur and a promiscuous mother with no illusions at all. Bobby's family is being destroyed by an abusive father to such an extent that he legally changes his last name to Noonan, his forever-pregnant mother’s maiden name, and eventually moves to Venice, Italy.

That was where Noonan used his 60-year-old hindsight to see what had eluded him in the past, as he more fully perceives the narrative of life as rendered by Russo, replete with schoolyard brawls, night terrors and spells, illness and initiations, homosexual advances, loveless seductions, racial tensions — all incidents split onto two tracks running closely parallel: "He and his friends were on one, their parents on another, and neither group realized until it was too late that the tracks convergence in the distance was no optical illusion. The Marcos, the Lynches … and the Bergs. Not one of those families would emerge unscathed from the collision."

But some repercussions may be fully determined with just a cursory assessment. At one point in Bridge of Sighs, Lou ponders the prospect of crawling from the wreckage as he has occasion to test an endurance he may never — if he must — be able to sustain. Looking over at a sleeping Sarah he wonders "how I’ll manage without her, absent her ability to see what’s there instead of what I prefer to see. I’ll have to make sense of things for myself. She’ll wake up soon and then be gone, so for a while I’ll watch her breathe and dream. So lovely."

You can almost hear him sigh. Like it was said the prisoners, who had crossed the Bridge of Sighs, would do at their final window view of beautiful Venice before being taken down to their cells.

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch