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Friday, October 5th, 2007
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Bridge of Sighs: A Novel

by Richard Russo

The Optimist's Son

A review by Ron Charles

Richard Russo was already the patron saint of small-town fiction, but with his new novel, Bridge of Sighs-- his first since the Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls -- he's produced his most American story. Once again he places us in a finely drawn community that's unable to adjust to economic changes, and with insight and sensitivity he describes ordinary people struggling to get by. But more than ever before, Russo ties this novel to the oldest preoccupations of our national consciousness by focusing on the nature of optimism and the limits of self-invention.

This, he writes, is "the narrative of our family, its small, significant journey. Is this not an American tale?" Indeed, no other modern author has defied the "small" in small town with such passion. On the first page of Bridge of Sighs, Russo dismisses any concern about provincialism: "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."

Here is a story to knock those condescending city slickers on their backsides, a story true to the pace and tenor of town life but rife with all the cares and crises of people everywhere. It takes place over many decades in Thomaston, N.Y., where the tannery slowly laid off and poisoned residents until most of them died or moved away. But not all-around nice guy "Lucy" Lynch, who grew up here, never left and is now nearing retirement. He acquired that embarrassingly feminine nickname in kindergarten when the teacher called for "Lou C. Lynch." All this and much more is explained in a history he's writing of the town and his life, a project inspired by an upcoming trip to Italy, where he hopes to see an old friend. He tells his wife that it should take 50 pages, "a hundred, tops," but since we've got 500 to go, we know that's misleading. Lucy's other misdirections are harder to spot, although he admits early on that "it is tempting to lie [about] everything." Why such a blessed and well-liked man should feel tempted to lie about anything is one of the many mysteries that slowly unfold.

Bridge of Sighs crosses through many subjects and themes -- it's Russo's most intricate, multifaceted novel -- but the story revolves around Lucy's relationship with his father, the man he adored and resembles in so many ways that it troubles him. Big Lou was a slightly goofy, sentimental man who grew up during the Depression but emerged convinced "that we were living a story whose ending couldn't be anything but happy." There's a touch of Willie Loman here, except in this version, against all odds, he does okay. A milkman at the dawn of the supermarket era, Big Lou refuses to acknowledge the imminent demise of his career. Lucy's mother, on the other hand, is a sharp, realistic woman, who finds her husband's unbridled optimism exasperating. She makes a point of contradicting his cheery predictions, but it makes no difference to Big Lou, who "maintained, if you kept your nose clean, good things were eventually bound to happen to you."

Lucy spends much of the novel negotiating these opposing points of view, aware that he always took his father's side against his mother's deflating realism. "I still remember how much this upset me," Lucy writes. "There wasn't supposed to be any limit to the benefits of hard work and honesty, and her saying there were limits implied that she didn't believe in America, or, worse, in us." Though decades have passed, Lucy remains torn between the two people who loved him, still trying to work out what kind of man he has become. This is not a particularly dramatic story -- a racially charged high-school beating provides the only real fireworks -- but Russo's sensitivity to the currents of friendship and family life, the conflicts, anxieties and irritations that mingle with affection and loyalty, make Bridge of Sighs a continual flow of little revelations.

The most interesting relationship in the novel is Lucy's unlikely friendship with Bobby Marconi, a tough kid who despises his abusive father as much as Lucy adores his own. He's confident and athletic, the mirror opposite of Lucy. Their friendship is badly one-sided, but Lucy is too infatuated to notice, and Bobby is just kind enough to resist telling this nerdy kid to get lost. Even after Bobby and some other ruffians stuff him in a trunk and traumatize him for the rest of his life, Lucy remains determined to believe that his friend wasn't involved.

Russo narrates significant sections of the novel in the third person, filling in details about Bobby's disturbing family life and "Lucy's terrible neediness." In addition, we get several chapters narrated by the adult Bobby, now 60, a famous artist living in Italy. The cumulative effect is a story of constantly evolving complexity and depth, a vast meditation on adolescence and the way it's remembered and misremembered to serve our needs.

It's peevish to complain about anything in such a lovely, deep-hearted novel, but I couldn't help letting out a few sighs of my own as the plot continued to branch out. There's simply too much here and too much redundancy. Lucy suggests that "it's all important," but as much as I enjoyed the book, I'm not convinced. Two of these characters are obsessed with writing very long stories, and Russo seems to have picked up the same compulsion. When he gets caught up in the thrills of a high-school romance -- Which boy will she choose? -- the Bridge of Sighs seems to be crossing over "Dawson's Creek." A late section involving Lucy's wife and an adorable little black child sounds extraneous and precious. And there's a tendency toward portentous profundity: "Odd, how our view of human destiny changes over the course of a lifetime. In youth we believe what the young believe, that life is all choice. We stand before a hundred doors, choose to enter one, where we're faced with a hundred more and then choose again. We choose not just what we'll do, but who we'll be," etc., etc. At such times, the plot, which is never particularly energetic, stalls, and the characters seem overwhelmed, rather than sustained, by the author's wisdom.

Listed like this, these complaints sound more damning than I mean them to. Actually, in the course of this enormous and enormously moving novel, I was continually seduced by Russo's insight and gentle humor, his ability to discern the ways we love and frustrate each other. Toward the end, before a trip to Boston, Lucy writes, "We will leave this small, good world behind us with the comfort of knowing it'll be here when we return." One sets down Russo's work with the same comforting reassurance.

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.

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