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Richard Russo’s Mirror on America

By (October 1, 2007) One Comment

Bridge of Sighs
By Richard Russo
Knopf, 2007

Among the rewards we take from reading, we are perhaps most grateful to those writers who give us physical worlds. Such worlds—those that live on, evolve, and fade in our memory like any place we may have visited—are comprehensive rather than singular. They don’t isolate themselves from the stream of time. The waitress at the bar and grill by the highway access road is not a permanent fixture, pouring the same cup of coffee on the first page of the book as on the last. It might be that the reason she works six days a week is that her daughter has gotten thousands of dollars into credit card debt. She would really much rather work at the café downtown, which closes after lunch and isn’t open at all on weekends, and in fact she manages to transfer there once her daughter begins dating a contractor from three counties over, who gallantly pays off her debt. The contractor has come to oversee the construction of a series of pre-fab houses on the site of a cleared forest in the north of town. To the unhappiness of a town hall at the low ebb of its power, the contractor is largely employing immigrant workers who have settled in trailers in the south and driven their resentful neighbors into apartment buildings nearer the town center. This is turn has sparked the resentment of the middle class, who aspire to buy the new houses and have begun taking out loans at dangerous rates, gambling on promotions. The construction workers take to frequenting the highwayside bar near their trailers, effectively making the place anathema to its former regulars. The owner shortens his hours and starts to have breakfast in the café downtown, where he tries to persuade his waitress to come back to work for him and looks her up and down in precisely the way that made her so eager to leave in the first place.

These may be some of the fluctuations that make up the ambient motions of a book whose setting lies in symbiosis with its story. The characters may be sidelights and their actions and motives may exist on the circumference of the story, but they are never discounted for that, and therefore the world they populate emerges as a place that beats steadily on beyond the realm of the book covers. Not only can we draw out an astonishingly detailed roadmap of any of the villages in Trollope’s Barsetshire or of Wolfe’s Asheville but we’re on familiar terms with the people we know to be in their doctor’s offices, schoolyards, churches, taverns, and town halls. Reality gives us no more than this, and usually gives us less.

Richard Russo is a writer of modest talent and modest means, but his sizable gift to literature, which alone sets him in the first rank of contemporary novelists, is just such an organic, evolving world. It’s decidedly a world in which the waitresses lead full lives, as do the policemen, school principals, janitors, divorce lawyers, and any number of other regulars who might not feature centrally in his novels but appear nevertheless in the midstream of full and complicated lives.

It’s also a distinctly American world that he’s produced, a northeast factory town that flourished under Eisenhower, began to decline after Kennedy, and reached a nadir of unemployment under Reagan and Bush. It’s indifferently Republican, mostly Catholic, and entirely backsliding. A self-sustaining economy of under-the-table tradework fends away serious poverty. The men, who either live comfortably as con artists or whittle themselves away at hard labor and hard drinking, don’t deserve their women and are never allowed to forget it. Save for the rare prodigy, the children are obstinately unteachable. A few wealthy families live in mansions down private driveways and are known to the town only through myth and scandalizing rumor. Cancer is epidemic. Fatal car accidents are a closely observed ritual. Except for a few ferociously bossy women who live to hector and malign unto the tenth generation, no one ever dies of old age.

We would like, of course, to give this town a name, but here Russo has made things more confusing than he might have. The town is alternately called Mohawk, North Bath, Empire Falls, and now, in his newest novel Bridge of Sighs, Thomaston. Possibly Russo has missed an opportunity here. The minor permutations with which he rearranges each setting for each book make no significant impression on us and lead to some redundancy. That Empire Falls is in Maine while the other towns are in upstate New York is a difference without a meaningful distinction. We don’t care that the off-track betting in Mohawk is conducted in a bar, in North Bath in a building in a strip mall, and in Thomaston in a convenience store. It’s matters very little whether the town’s defunct industrial hub is a textile mill, as in Empire Falls, or a tannery, as in Mohawk and Thomaston. These vicissitudes only perplex a picture that is otherwise vivid and natural in our imagination. Russo is clearly writing about a single place—if he had given that place a single name he could have expanded our understanding of it along his successive narratives while avoiding the repetition that occasionally dogs them. (Mohawk is the setting of his first two novels, but then, apart from a single mention in the third, it disappears for good.)

Even so, despite the superficial complications we have to sort through and the small emendations we have to make at the outset of each book, Russo’s rising stature rests on the fact that he has revealed deeper and more challenging social dilemmas in the portrayal of his world. The Mohawk of The Risk Pool (1988) is as entertaining a place as you could want to spend 400 pages, but its aggressively insular, backwater, and—not to put too fine a point on it—stupid. The only intelligent thing its inhabitants ever do is move away. It’s a town of bars, diners, and pool halls, with the odd suburb, church, or law office sprinkled in, and the genially primitive and amoral infrastructure reflects the novel’s minor-key theme, that of man’s ingrained need to assert a destructively pointless masculine independence—the inalienable freedom to waste his life on a barstool:

What we shared…was something not to be underestimated. We could all boast, this night, anyway, that no matter how messed up we were, at least our lives were not being dictated by women. Offered tender breasts and warm pussies, by God we showed them we could not be so easily bought. Never mind that in some cases the offer was twenty years old and nineteen rescinded, we were still making a point regarding the female population. A declaration of independence. We could do without them, because they were only women, after all.

The Risk Pool is an immensely fun novel that one can recommend to friends at a high rate of success (a perk deeply valued by heavy readers), but it’s a middle-America picaresque, whose unabashed love for its miscreant characters lends it an endearing sweetness at the cost of diminishing the book’s importance.

North Bath, in Nobody’s Fool (1993), is elementally the same as Mohawk, but shallower and inferior. The town is built up with the same gimlet eye by way of the same humorous, disarmingly chatty prose (one of the funnier details is the dispute between the high school principal and English teachers about whether the team’s nickname should be the Sabertooths or the Saberteeth), but it’s a town exclusively peopled by hard-luck losers and stubborn idiots, and the charm of this manifestation of Russo’s world, unsupported by much plot or premise beyond the funniness of irreformable idiocy, exhausts itself long before the book manages to end.

It’s in the 2001 Pulitzer Prize winning novel Empire Falls that Russo’s world begins to confront social problems that run deeper than cheating hearts and stupid male behavior. Mohawk and North Bath were characterized as aloof flyspecks having little or no commerce with the rest of America. Even though their inhabitants are always on the move, the towns themselves are trapped in the amber of economic recession—the traumas and glories of the wider world, even in nearby Albany or New York City, tend to be just morning coffee hearsay and have little effect on them.

Empire Falls, too, is bogged in a recession and seems equally cut off from the rest of the planet, but the unfolding of the book’s plot is directly connected to the increasing intrusion of larger-world issues, the sort of things the people in Mohawk would only watch on the evening news. Empire Falls is, for instance, the first of Russo’s novels that genuinely looks into small-town religious faith. It also features a gay priest (handled in this case with excellent understatement). Death, appearing with medieval omnipresence in these books, is for the first time unleavened by irony. Real malevolence, not just dumb vulgarity, begins to surface, and the novel culminates in one of the most terrifying events of modern time, a school shooting.

With a working class hero at the mercy of a cruel aristocratic heiress, like Pip under the spell of Miss Havisham, Empire Falls seems to be modeled off Great Expectations, and Russo’s weaving of danger and tragedy with wry comedy and playful non sequitors is Dickensian too (although, like Dickens, his weaving is done rather artlessly and he compensates for the shortage of skill with a sometimes draining verbosity). Just as Great Expectations contains the famous scene of Mr. Wopsle’s horrid performance of Hamlet—a scene that has no bearing on anything and justifies itself purely by being hilarious—Empire Falls has time for enjoyable digressions such as the conflict between getting up to pee or keeping your barstool or the miracle of a middle-aged woman’s first orgasm. Dickens and Russo are novelists whose first order of business is to entertain; with Empire Falls, Russo begins to aspire to the old master’s twin talent for instruction.

(Not altogether successfully, it must be said, since school shootings are too hideously freakish to submit to instruction. Russo attempts to explain the event as a consequence of parental neglect and high school bullying and even makes the shooter sane and fairly conscientious, which has never been the case in reality.)

But in Bridge of Sighs the moral themes that were explored to spotty success in Empire Falls occupy an overpowering position, and indicate an astonishing progress if we have in mind the bawdy hijinks of The Risk Pool. The tone is so solemn, the mood so ruminative that it is hard at times to recognize Russo from his previous novels. Bridge of Sighs has its own share of problems, as we shall see, but it’s easily Russo’s most mature, emotionally rich work, and its setting, Thomaston, is the fullest, most diverse, most representatively American town he has yet created.

The creation of Thomaston is done by means of a memoir written by the novel’s main character Lou Lynch, and it is Russo at his controlled, assured best. Block by block this town is freshly brought together. Three distinct neighborhoods appear, each separated by tax bracket and race: West End, East End, and the leafy suburbs of the Borough. The closed tannery sits on the outskirts; its dyes used to color the river and have since resulted in shockingly high cancer rates, especially among the poorer West Enders who lived downstream. Schools, movie halls, parks, and the ubiquitous bars are delineated in varying degrees of seediness depending on which side of Division Street they straddle, whether they’re in the West or East End.

Indeed, everything and everyone in Thomaston is categorized by neighborhood, and the stamp of separation is equally construed in the clothing people wear as in the color of their skin. Lou observes,

When I was growing up it wasn’t difficult to trace the provenance of a particular item of clothing. A blue blazer, for instance, might be purchased for a junior high or high school boy by his Borough parents; by the following summer he would have outgrown it, and the blazer would then be donated to their church’s clothing drive, after which it would reappear on the back of some East End kid, whose parents would take it the following year to Goodwill, where a West End mother would purchase it for her son.

The stratification of Thomaston speaks to a complexity not found in Mohawk, or even in Empire Falls. The old drunks and bluffers from those towns are still around, of course—if anybody wants them, they’re in the bars. But Russo largely doesn’t want them any longer. He’s focusing instead on Lou, “relentlessly unexceptional,” middle-class, happily married, civic-minded, and a lifelong Thomaston enthusiast. Lou and Thomaston’s fortunes are rooted together, and the town’s entropic decay to the forces of economic stagnation and racial imbalance reflect the surfacing currents of disillusionment and disunity that threaten Lou’s seemingly happy family life.

As he recounts in his memoir, he acquired his rose-tinted boosterism from his father, Lou Sr., a former milk deliveryman who unwisely bought a convenience store when Thomaston’s economic downturn (and the increasing irrelevance of milkmen) forced him off his route. Lou Sr. is a dogged optimist who sees his family’s rise from the West End to the East End as the fulfillment of the great promise of America and—despite the evidence pointed to by the direction of the economy and the hand-me-down clothing—is unable to believe that fortunes can ever do anything but rise. He’s married, somewhat implausibly, to a perceptive, pragmatic, and, at her most harried, bitterly cynical woman named Teresa, the book’s vociferous moral conscience and one of Russo’s greatest characters (undoubtedly his most interesting woman). Whereas Lou Sr. refuses to extrapolate from people’s actions anything beyond good intentions, making him at once heroic and simple-minded, Teresa sees the world motivated by baser self-interest. East Enders, she explains to her son as an example of human behavior, are obsessive about keeping their fingernails clean not because of a healthy devotion to hygiene but so that they won’t be mistaken for manual laborers from the West End:

It was human nature, she explained. You don’t identify with people worse off than you are. You make your deals, if you can, with those who have more, because you hope one day to have more yourself. Understand that, she claimed, and you understand America.

The claim that an understanding of America follows from an understanding of Thomaston is born out by the increased respect Russo pays to the corrosive effects of racism, which proves just as poisonous to the town as the dyes that taint its river. Racism has always been the prevalent knee-jerk attitude in Russo’s world, but in Mohawk and North Bath it’s a toothless, virtually joking prejudice owing to the lack of any actual black people in those towns. Thomaston’s West End, in contrast, is mostly black, and racial tensions are contained only by strict enforcement of physical and psychological boundaries. One of the signal events of Lou’s youth takes place when someone “crosses the line”—a black teenager goes to the movies with a white date and is beaten so mercilessly that he falls into a coma. The entire town comes under indictment after the beating because no one in an entire parking lot full of bystanders did anything to stop it. Eventually, the white boy who started the fight has something of a spiritual conversion, recants his bullying, and goes on to be a success, exemplifying Lou Sr., American dream—but now the rise in fortune stinks of injustice, especially since the fate of the boy who was pummeled is to be sent to die in Vietnam.

The incident casts a long shadow across Lou’s life, and from a sense of guilt he becomes a kind of provider for the beaten boy’s father, whose sad presence acts a refutation to the simple faith in the goodness of man Lou Sr. dedicated his life to maintaining. Lou asks himself,

What kind of town [was Thomaston]? What kind of country? What kind of people? If my father had been on the courthouse steps that day he might have been able to summon his deeply held conviction that ours as a good town, a good country, and that we were good people, but I couldn’t think what to say.

Lou might revere his father, but it’s his mother’s cold skepticism that the fortunes of Thomaston are constantly confirming.

If the dichotomy between Lou Sr. and Teresa seems at times too stark and deliberate, it nevertheless succeeds in establishing in Lou the conflict that gives the book much of its tension and tender pathos. The product of both his parents, Lou aspires to his father’s big-hearted idealism while never being able to free himself of his mother’s badgering cynicism (nor of his mother who, like the Cumaean Sybil, becomes sourer and more shrunken as she ages but apparently not any closer to death). He escapes the burden of facing the contradiction by physically blacking out whenever he’s confronted by events that are frightening or overwhelming. These “spells” begin during an elementary school prank and persist into Lou’s middle-age, and he’s himself unhealthily ambiguous about their danger because of the security they give him, the sense that “I had the power to vanish my tormentors.”

Unsurprisingly, Lou has no interest in ever leaving the comfort and familiar safety of Thomaston, not even to go on a brief vacation to Italy that his wife Sarah has been planning for years. Lou has in his turn married a woman with some of Teresa’s brilliance (though less of her willfulness), and the question of whether Sarah would have been better off with somebody who encouraged her talents at the risk of losing her—she was a gifted painter as a young woman—rather than a man who loves her unconditionally but boxes her into a small-town routine hangs over the couple and their future together.

Since this is a novel, that “somebody” is not merely hypothetical but found in the person of Robert Noonan, a troubled childhood friend of Lou and Sarah who fled Thomaston and, as the book starts, lives in Venice as a renowned painter. It’s due to the addition of Noonan that readers of Bridge of Sighs will be obliged to demonstrate some patience and toleration if they are going to reap its rewards. This novel is unquestionably, laudably, Russo’s most ambitious, but as a result it exposes most nakedly his artistic weaknesses, most of which appear when Russo dares to venture outside of his home turf.

His depiction of Venice, for instance, although promising at first, is stunted by a lack of attention, and the Eternal City ultimately feels sketchy and guidebook-informed. Noonan himself, the rough-around-the-edges Thomaston transplant in a Venetian loft, is curiously unbelievable as a world-famous artist, again because Russo gives us little concrete sense of how he works. Russo is usually wonderful at describing work—construction, bartending, cooking, clerking, and even, in The Risk Pool, editing and writing—but he doesn’t seem to know how painting is done. Far more grating is Noonan’s gay agent Hugh, who’s plucked straight from a late episode of Will & Grace. We delved deeply into the amiable consciousness of the gay priest in Empire Falls, but Hugh is used here for something like comic relief. And even though Russo means well, his black characters tend to be infected with an unintentional air of minstrelsy. All of these features have the air of the exotic, and Russo, like the reluctant Lou Lynch, seems nervous around them and always anxious to get back to Thomaston’s East End.

Noonan’s substory also has the effect of fracturing the constitution of the narrative—it clashes noisily with the first person form of Lou’s memoir, and as we switch back and forth we feel somewhat that the author is taking liberties with us. When Russo later adds a third story—this about Sarah’s childhood—told in an altogether different style, the structure of the book becomes so smashed up in so artless a fashion that it can’t be repaired in any satisfying ending.

The trouble is again related to Russo’s principal gift—notwithstanding the heavy-handed plot tricks he gleaned from Dickens for Empire Falls, he has always been less concerned with telling a story than with evoking a world. And worlds, if they’re believable conjured, don’t end. The art is in negotiating conclusion with continuation: our tale is come to a close, but our players live on, and perhaps (if enough readers wish it) we’ll one day rejoin them.

All the confident mastery with which Russo invents Thomaston escapes him as he senses he’s going to have to leave this world, apparently forever. And what about the waitresses and English teachers and priests and butchers and bar-rats who have all had live breathed into them? Each life must be resolved with some kind of fitting finality, and the task is far beyond Russo’s grasp. The last one hundred pages of Bridge of Sighs drag on in a tangle of explanations and derived and confusing codas; it’s the labored writing of a man who’s unable to say goodbye.

It’s no small redemption, however, that by this point the reader largely shares the author’s sentiment and wants to stay on in Thomaston with only a waning storyline as a guide. Lou speaks for everyone when he laments, “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.”

What does forcefully endure to the last page of Bridge of Sighs is the ache of nostalgia and melancholy, and if the tone is funereal it’s also sage and hard-earned. What’s being buried is the innocent faith in what the world should be, in place of a hard acceptance of what it is. But Thomaston, like Lou and Sarah’s marriage, goes on.

Mohawk, North Bath, and even Empire Falls: they also go on in the imagination, but they are far more monolithic places far less affected by the evils and advances of their times. With Bridge of Sighs Russo has created his most accurate and deep-seeing mirror on the country: to understand Thomaston is to better understand America. It’s a place Russo might want to consider returning to.

Sam Sacks has written books reviews for Pittsburgh Pulp, The Tucson Weekly, The New York Press, The Las Vegas Weekly, Columbia Journal of American Studies, freezerbox.com, and thefanzine.com. He lives in New York City.