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On seeing that Richard Russo has written yet another novel about small town life in upstate New York where the industry is declining and people are moving away, one might expect more of the same. Russo is extremely good at setting out the small details of this world, and putting it in historical context, so there's real pleasure to be found in his unfolding stories of local characters. However, Bridge of Sighs is a more ambitious novel with philosophical aims; in this work, Russo explores the roots of human behavior, the possibility of freewill, and even the nature of happiness. He also grapples with race relations, marriage, and of course the relationships between fathers and sons. The main narrator is Louis Charles Lynch, known to most around town as "Lucy," who is an affable and bland. At first, one yearns for a more eccentric and interesting central character, such as Miles Roby in Russo's Empire Falls or the no-good Sully of Nobody's Fool. Gradually though, as he tells more of his own story, he becomes more complex, and the story also takes the point of view of several other main characters; specifically Lucy's wife Sarah and his childhood friend Bobby. By the end, Russo has set out a manifesto for the inevitability of people being who they are and the possibility of making a good life for oneself anyway.
The plot is simple enough in its main arc. Lucy is now 60 years old and he is looking back on his life, so he embarks on writing about his childhood. He writes about his formative experiences, the relationship between his perpetually optimistic father and his more cynical mother, an episode of bullying which deeply affected him and left him with episodic trance-like spells that made him weak, his tentative friendship with Bobby Marconi, meeting Sarah and their initial relationship, and the family's financial troubles as the local leather tanning industry winds down and the growth in supermarkets puts his father's job as a milkman in jeopardy. Most of the detail goes into describing Lucy's life between the ages of about 10 and 20; some of the details of the intervening years are briefly filled in, and Russo goes into the recent lives of Lucy, Sarah and Bobby. Lucy and Sarah have a son, who is married, but not very happily. Sarah has made many sacrifices in her life, staying in the home town of Thomaston to be with Lucy, rather than follow through on her promising career as an artist. Bobby has, amazingly, become a major artist, and now lives in Venice. Bobby has had a life of great artistic creation, yet he is now preoccupied with the past too, and is working it out with his latest canvas. He has never settled down in a long-term marriage, and he seems deeply unsatisfied with his life, to the extent of having night terrors and saying out loud in his sleep that he was sorry. He hasn't seen Lucy and Sarah since he left town just after high school, now over 40 years ago. But now it seems that there's a chance they will meet up again: his old friends are planning a vacation to Italy, and what's more, Bobby is considering taking up an offer to spend a semester as a visiting artist at Columbia University. So there's a chance they can all meet up and reminisce about old times, maybe achieving some sort of resolution.
Russo's descriptions of Bobby's current life are by far the weakest of the book. Bobby now calls himself 'Noonan,' and while is a well-known painter living in Venice, one gets very little sense of how or why he became an artist. For Russo, Bobby's transformation into an artist after leaving his hometown seems to have mainly symbolic meaning: it is a release of creativity after escaping the confines of a repressive and conservative life, and also an expression of all the frustrations that were caused by his childhood, especially his turbulent relationship with his father. Bobby's current relationships -- an affair with a married painter, a fight with the woman's husband, and a game of cat and mouse with his agent who is visiting from New York -- all feel basically expository and seem superfluous. Even the emotional breakthrough he achieves through his painting has minimal resonance, despite their connection with the past. Russo's portrayal of the present-day Noonan lacks vigor and distinctness, and it is a relief when he moves on from those portions of the novel.
By way of contrast, the other main event to happen in the present works much better. Sarah spends some time visiting Long Island, where she used to visit her mother during the summers after her parents divorced. Her trip away from her hometown gives her the opportunity to reflect on her life and the choices she made early in her life; the continuity between her older self and her younger self makes this episode far more convincing, and the details of the location are also more vivid.
As a meditation on freedom and fate, Bridge of Sighs will provoke deliberation: the similarity between Lucy and his father Lou is genetic, and all the characters are basically set in their ways. Lou is determined to see the good in most people and wants to be their friends, except with his brother Dec who he writes off as unreliable and mean spirited. Lucy is critical of his own son Owen, thinking his life too short on passion, but Sarah points out that Owen is his father's son. Sarah and Bobby are the only characters in the story who really have the initiative and talent to leave Thomaston, and Lucy has more in common with Bobby than she does with Lucy. She could have escaped when she went to college, but she got pulled back, while Bobby had to leave town because he was in trouble, and that trouble was itself inevitable. So even Bobby's escape was not due to his own planning but the fate that was set for him from the start. Quite how Bobby became a successful artist is never explained, so the novel is silent on to what extent he was the author of his own career.
While Russo's novel has some flaws, it is memorable both in its details and its themes. The broadening of Russo's horizons from the scope of his previous novels is most welcome, even if it proceeds a little awkwardly. The performance in the unabridged audiobook by Arthur Morey seems to be a little slow and ponderous at first, but as we get to know Lucy, it turns out to fit his character very well. What's more, it serves well in its steadiness to help the listener through the 27 hours of the reading.
© 2008 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.