Bridge of SighsRichard RussoAlfred A. Knopf, $26.95, 528 pp.
For over twenty years, in half a dozen novels, Richard Russo has followed the examples of William Faulkner and William Kennedy in choosing a single geography for his fiction. He returns to one remembered place again and again, mining it for general insights into the human condition. His geography is a little less focused, a little more regional than Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Kennedy’s Albany. Russo’s territory is a Northeastern American town that grew up around a factory and now finds itself on life-support decades after the factory closed. It might be in upstate New York or in New England. It always has a fictional name, but those familiar with the region will feel that they know its real-life original.
Lewiston, New York, the setting of Bridge of Sighs, prospered as long as the local river ran red or blue or green with the discharges of the local tannery—a liquid rainbow that would eventually prove carcinogenic. Now the factory is dead, the river runs relatively clear, and those with any gumption have left town. The novel’s protagonist is a familiar Russo figure: the one who stayed behind, and whose late-midlife questioning of his motives for doing so generates the narrative. Roughly half the novel’s twenty-four chapters are the text of a memoir by Louis Charles Lynch, who picked up the unfortunate nickname “Lucy” when his kindergarten teacher included his middle initial in her first roll call. Now he calls himself Lou, but the old nickname sticks. The other chapters are third-person narratives that follow Lou’s wife Sarah and his friend Bobby Marconi, whom he hasn’t seen for forty years. The memoir is Lou’s attempt to understand the love triangle that they have formed. The reader’s own attempt to understand this love triangle has the advantage of those other chapters that reveal Bobby and Sarah to us apart from Lou’s perception of them.
Bobby and Sarah have gumption. Bobby left town as a teenager after a violent explosion of his long-simmering hatred for his father. When we first meet him in the novel, he is a world-renowned painter living in Venice, courted by Columbia University’s art department, and used to sleeping with his friends’ wives and getting into fist fights. We must deal with the puzzle of his new last name, Noonan (eventually we learn it is his mother’s maiden name). He has canceled his relationship to his father, but he is obsessed with an unfinished portrait of him that darkens with every brush stroke. Others take it to be a self-portrait.
Sarah is also a talented artist, and she too might have escaped Lewiston if she hadn’t fallen in love with Lou and married him. She had also been in love with Bobby and has never really ceased to be, something that works itself to the surface of her mind, and Lou’s, as they contemplate a trip to Italy and a possible reunion with Bobby. In some ways, her marriage to Lou reproduces that of his parents. Both husbands are at once optimistic and immobile, both wives restless and ironic. A generation does make a difference, though: Lou’s worldview is much more self-conscious and critical than that of his father Louis Patrick, and Sarah is much less bitter than Lou’s mother Tessa. The crisis that cancels the trip to Italy, however, drives Sarah out of the house—something that never quite happened with Tessa.
Russo unfolds his plot with an artfully dislocated chronology, and the device of Lou’s memoir helps create this dislocation. Afraid of what his imagined reader might think, and of the pain that might be renewed by putting a memory on paper, Lou does not mention certain important facts until after he’s described their bewildering consequences. The anticipation of a story temporarily withheld is, of course, what engages us in any fiction, but Lou’s narrative withholdings, which clearly express his defensive shyness, also increase our sympathy for him.
Russo’s artfulness is evident in the way he makes art itself advance the plot and reveal emotion. Sarah first brings Bobby into the circle of the Lynch family by drawing a picture of him walking into their deli. In the novel’s present tense, Noonan interrupts work on his father’s portrait to start another painting—the image comes to him in a sort of vision and almost paints itself. It is a picture of Sarah, whom he hasn’t seen in years and has no expectation of seeing. The light that fills the portrait of Sarah eventually finds its way back into the painting of Noonan’s father. As Noonan returns to it, he relinquishes the pure and destructive pleasure of his hatred. In another redemption by art (cleverly suggested by the book’s dust jacket), the railway trestle where Lou was once locked in a trunk by grammar-school bullies—a trauma that precipitated the first of his “spells” of defensive catalepsy—is transformed in a painting by Sarah into the mournful beauty of the Venetian Bridge of Sighs. Lou enters this painting in the last of his “spells” and finds the hope of a way out of his melancholy.
Bridge of Sighs is not quite as good as Empire Falls, for which Russo received the Pulitzer Prize in 2001. A reader new to Russo would be well advised to start with that earlier book. But Bridge of Sighs will prolong and deepen the reader’s appreciation of Russo’s gift for narrative, a gift that reminds me of Charles Dickens. Like Dickens, Russo sometimes comes up with halfhearted subplots, like one here involving a character named Koslowski. But Russo also has Dickens’s gift for sharply defining a whole character with a phrase or a single gesture. And, again like Dickens, he is able to embed each character’s story in a communal destiny. After one reads these two latest Russo novels, the way back to all his earlier fiction is open and inviting.