Dirty Streams and Broken Towns: Richard Russo’s Upstate Social Order
There is a moment in Alan Bennett’s wonderful novel in miniature, The Uncommon Reader, recommended here by Maud Newton, when the royal literary figure in question realizes the joy of discovering a favorite writer has been hiding in plain sight, awaiting only discovery and a hundred or so quiet evenings. A few years ago, I had that delicious immersion in the work of Richard Russo, a famous modern writer whose work I’d lazily ignored since his first novels of the 1980s.
Discovered, the Russo canon became a sprint through the lives of drifters and losers in a string of upstate New York towns, a pleasure-filled reading dash along the broken-down mainstreets of Mohawk and North Bath and Empire Falls. Russo used the economically-depressed real world of upstate to craft his entirely fictional alternate universe, where seemingly minor happenings become major events in the lives of his compelling characters. Some public building was always burning, some love affair was ending, some failed, hard-drinking son was fighting with his failed, alcoholic father. And the mill was always closing down.
Yet these small lives had meaning in Russo’s literary vocabulary; they amounted to nothing, barely a headline or two in the local weeklies and never registered to the fast set in the world capital down the Hudson. But Russo dressed those lives in detail, in connections, in the creation of small societies of men and women. So too do they still matter in Russo’s epic Bridge of Sighs, in many ways his most ambitious novel, which occasionally wanders to New York and Long Island and even Venice – but whose beating heart remains in Thomaston, New York, another failing town where the tannery has poisoned the water and boosted the rate of deadly cancers.
Bridge of Sighs revolves around the unremarkable life of Lou C. Lynch and his family and small circle of friends. Lynch is something of George Bailey type around Thomaston – at 60, a city father of a dusty village where he owns a few businesses. One incident in his childhood has forever changed Lynch’s relationship to the world, his perception of both friendship and reality, and feeds his clinging nature and fear of change. That this feeling is so universal in the human experience – the urge to play defense in life – is a tool that Russo uses well to draw readers into the web of life in Thomaston.
Russo has never sketched better women, in my view. The artist Sarah Berg, who marries Lou Lynch, is complex and throws unexpected angles. But Tessa Lynch is the moral heart of the story, a woman experienced at life and utterly unsentimental. She knows disaster and heartbreak when she sees it, and she sees it around every corner. You’d cast Thelma Ritter as Tess if she were still alive. Her husband is Lou Lynch Sr., a beloved simpleton who believes the best of everyone he ever meets.
There is violence in Thomaston: the savage beating of a black teenager for dating a white girl, a suicide, broken bones, car crashes and oedipal fist-fights. And there is tragedy too, mainly in the form of cancer borne in the river that gave Thomaston money but strangled its health. The themes of race and sex and betrayal permeate this anti-Mayberry.
But we’ve seen that before from Russo. What I like best about Bridge of Sighs is the brilliant notion of time, and Russo’s refusal to be tied to a linear path in the story. It’s his most complex work, by far. He jumps around through half a century of episodes, and easily changes the point of view, sometimes slipping into first person, sometimes veering to the telling of some plot point by a minor character. Yet it holds together, and the narrative disclosure grows slowly – not so much fueled by suspense (we know it ends badly) as by inevitability, the kind we all feel about our own lives, or the life of someone who is lost to us.
Early in the story, Lou Lynch looks back on his life, on never leaving the small town, on working in an living near the same corner store his parents ran:
Some people, upon learning how we’ve lived our lives, are unable to conceal their chagrin on our behalf, that our lives should be so limited, as if experience so geographically circumscribed could be neither rich nor satisfying. When I assure them that it has been both, their smiles suggest we’ve been blessed with self-deception by way of compensation for all we’ve missed. I remind such people that until fairly recently the vast majority of humans have been circumscribed in precisely this manner and that lives can also be constrained by a great many other things: want, illness, ignorance, loneliness and lack of faith, to name just a few.
The irony is that lack of faith constrains most of the lives on Thomaston despite Lynch’s innate optimism; his mother always tells him that he’s only fooling himself. Bridge of Sighs captures that lack of faith and its central place in the many failed lives in town. After all, as Lynch notes a few paragraphs later:
Obituaries, I believe, are really less about death than the odd shapes life takes, the patterns that death allows us to see.
So too, Richard Russo’s latest.