Conflicts of class and desire unfold in Russo's small-town America

Review Novel

October 07, 2007|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,[Special to The Sun]

Bridge of Sighs

Richard Russo

Knopf / $26.95/ 528pages

Richard Russo inexplicably - despite having won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2002 for Empire Falls - is one of those writers who flies under the radar more often than not.

The elegiac saga style of novel isn't as fashionable as it once was, except among romances. Russo is a bit of a romance writer and a bit of a popular writer as well, but as his latest effort, Bridge of Sighs attests, he's above all a literary novelist who spins a good, if sometimes dark, tale. Bridge of Sighs is decidedly dark, with a narrow wedge of optimism imbedded, deep.

Russo lives in Maine, on the coast, which is a great place to write and ruminate, and if Bridge of Sighs has a theme, it's rumination and where that takes one.

Louis Charles Lynch is 60. He's an old 60, not a "60 is the new 50" kind of 60. He thinks about death and dying a lot, worries about his wife of 40 years, Sarah, who's been ill and may die and has some inner demons. He is glad for his one son, Owen. He seems more like a man in his 70s, than someone who just crossed the line from middle age to the approach of old age.

It is this approach of old age that spurs the couple to contemplate a trip to Italy, to travel as well as to visit Lynch's oldest friend, the renowned painter and expatriate, Robert Noonan, who lives in Venice.

The trip might not sound like much, but Lynch - Lucy to all who know him due to a misreading of his name in kindergarten (Lou C. Lynch) - has never left his hometown of Thomaston, New York. So the trip, which he dreads while his wife thrills at the prospect, is for him, huge.

The trip's the pivot, but not the tale. The tale is of Lynch's past, Noonan's present and the intersection of the two. If this seems like a flimsy armature on which to build a novel that is well over 130,000 words, it's not. Not at all.

Lynch is the embodiment of the axiom "still waters run deep." An only child of the local milkman and an accountant whose parents think she married beneath herself, Lynch had a solitary but eventful childhood. His father was beloved - Big Lou Lynch was personable, if not ambitious. More than anything he had a dogged optimism which was his greatest legacy to his son. Tessa, Lynch's mother, was more dour, exacting and in all things, practical. It was not a marriage made in heaven, but had nothing of the hidden violence of the marriage of his best friend, Bobby's parents, the Marconis.

Mrs. Marconi was always pregnant and always afraid. Her only friend was Tessa and as a child, Lynch discerned something not-quite-right between his friend's mother and his mother. But the doors to the Marconi home were always shut to all but Tessa when Mr. Marconi was at his job at the post office, so Lynch never knew what went on inside Bobby's home.

These relationships form the fundament of the book, as well as its keystone. What Lynch doesn't realize until he begins to write his own history - which is a history of Thomaston and his own family - and reconnect with Noonan, is that these relationships are also a Rosetta Stone, the decoder of what went awry in his childhood and Bobby's. They are also key to where Sarah figures into the picture, as she later became the third member of their triumvirate.

Thomaston is central to the story. A mill town of working class Irish and Italians, it's also a Love Canal. The local tannery kept the town employed. It also made everyone sick. Cancer fed the town while its dyes ran into the river, sometimes turning it the color of blood. The fumes, the carcinogens, catching up to everyone. As Lucy contemplates the paradox, he notes: "Can it be that what provides for us is the very thing that poisons us? Who hasn't considered this terrible possibility?"

Noonan is considering that very question in Venice. Also just having turned a very virile and complicated 60, he's certain he has cancer. He's just as certain the cancer's genesis is Thomaston. But unlike Lynch, he neither fears dying nor thinks he's close to it. For him it only means fewer paintings to paint, if he doesn't have his 70s or 80s to continue to work.

Noonan's planning a trip to the States - his first in 20 years - for a big showing in New York. "All sell," as his agent, Hugh, notes. But Hugh, a doffish queen dressed in haute couture New York black-on-black chic, is more concerned with the dark tone Noonan's paintings have taken, particularly an unfinished work he identifies as a self-portrait, but which Noonan realizes is actually a painting of his dark and troublesome father. Hugh thinks Noonan is suicidal. Noonan's lover, Evangeline, doesn't disagree.

The novel weaves between the two central characters: Lynch tells his own story in a poignant and evocative first person narrative. Noonan's outre existence as womanizer and reclusive painter is told in a deeply ruminative third person. In the hands of a lesser writer, this conceit would irritate. In Russo's deft hands, the transitions are seamless.

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