Sunday, December 16, 2007

Ponte dei Sospiri

Is Richard Russo the best novelist in America today?
by Charlie Leck

As the legend goes, beneath the Bridge of Sighs, in a gondola at sunset, kiss and you are guaranteed eternal love. (I can guaranty that it doesn't work!) The bridge is one of many built in Venice during the 16th century. It connects the interrogation rooms in the Doge's Palace to the old prisons on the other side of the Rio di Palazzo. Lord Byron gave the bridge its name. He imagined the condemned prisoners crossing through the bridge, from the courtrooms back to their prison cells, sighing heavily as they go to their executions. In fact, criminal executions had ceased before the bridge was built and the jail cells really only housed low-level prisoners. Good story though!

So is the one Richard Russo tells in his book by this same name, The Bridge of Sighs. It's a very good story, wonderfully told, with delectable little surprises and curious mysteries along the way.

Like all of his works, The Bridge of Sighs is about the lives of plain, but complex people in a small town in the eastern United States. The characters in this novel – even the nasty ones – are likable enough. Each of them is so carefully created for us that it is simple to keep track of them and we are allowed by the author to experience them quite viscerally. When I turned the last page over and began the last paragraph ("That's how we leave it."), I was very comfortable with all these new, fictional friends I had made and I was terribly glad that I had shared time with them.

Russo has this extraordinary ability to do that with his characters, in all his novels, and you don't easily forget the experiences you've had with them. The first of his books I ever read, on the recommendation of a friend, was Straight Man. It remains one of my all-time favorite books. I smiled and giggled throughout the reading and still do today when I bring the characters back to mind. The narrator of Straight Man, William Henry Devereaux, Jr., the improbable, temporary chairman of the English department in a small Pennsylvania college, is still very memorable to me. No novelist in America has the talent that Russo has to create and describe the players in a story. Lou C. Lynch, the newest lead man created by Russo, joins the ranks of these wonderful and memorable characters. Lucy, as he became accidentally known, is the general narrator of the story and the all-purpose tour guide on our visit to Thomaston, New York.

So real is this story that one is convinced it must be biographical. That's not likely so, however. It's just that Russo has this knack for making every event in the lives of his characters seem so perfectly probable and possible. Such a story ought to be downright boring, but Russo makes it downright fascinating and tantalizing.

I'm trying in these few paragraphs to introduce you to Lucy Lynch and to tempt you to go on down to the library to pick up his story and read it for yourselves. He's a common man who spent his life in an ordinary town among routine, small-town people. As a boy he had great difficulty making friends and most other kids took advantage of him. Somehow, as a teenager, he meets a spectacularly plain, ordinary girl who turns out to be an extraordinary and delightful person. The girl-woman basically saves Lucy from himself and from a likely personality implosion. This is all purposefully vague because I don't want to ruin the surprises for you.

Go visit Thomaston yourself. See the stained and polluted Cayoga Stream that runs through it. Be sure to get to know the down-and-out folks who live on the west side of Division Street and the upward moving families that managed to settle on the east side. Get on over to Whitcomb Park to meet Gabriel Monk. Gabe is a fence painter and he loves to howl. He'll tell you that you can call him anything you want "'cept nigger." That's a bad name and you'll get your head busted open if you use it. You'll learn some important things from Gabriel and his son, Three. Spend most of your time in Ikey Lubin's, the little convenience store that rules over this story, and get to know the delightful and delicate family that owns it. Whatever you do, though, just stay away from the water! The stream was terribly polluted by the old tannery that spilled waste out and into it for so many years.

As one reads, one gets the feeling that these ordinary details of a simple and plain story are leading somewhere. Janet Maslin, writing in the New York Times, put it this way: "But in the midst of these small matters, the big contours of 'Bridge of Sighs' emerge. They are richly evocative and beautifully wrought, delivered with deceptive ease. Another of Mr. Russo's hallmarks is that wonderfully unfashionable gift for effortless storytelling on a sweeping, multigenerational scale."

I think this book is going to be deeply loved because Lucy Lynch will remind nearly all of us of the child we were – spot on! I'm email-chatting these days with two friends I began kindergarten with over 60 years ago. I see them both, and I see myself, in some of the plain and remarkable characters created in Bridge of Sighs. How fascinating it is to now remember the complexity of the emotions we had when we were such wee ones. One would think those jumbled emotions would not make a very good story, but Mr. Russo knew better.

This is not just a good book. It's a perfectly wonderful one!

Is Richard Russo the best novelist in America today? I think so! Certainly, he's the best of all the popular, best-selling writers.

Russo, Richard: Bridge of Sighs [Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2007,
ISBN: 978-0-375-41495-4]

It's not central to this review (book report) of Russo's latest novel, but one remarkable paragraph brought me back so clearly to my own childhood and my own parents that I had to write it down and tuck it somewhere that would cause me to come across it occasionally. I know my two brothers and my sister do not share this same, odd feeling I have about my parents and I have never been able to reason out why they don't.

"That's what our parents are. The first mystery we encounter in a mysterious world. We see them every day as they go about their business. Painting the fence. Painting it again. One thing's for sure, they aren't telling us."

I've likely spent too much time trying to figure out who my parents were; that is, what in life meant most to them, and what great secrets did they have, and how dearly did they love each other, and what were their great disappointments, and how did they feel about social injustice. I see my father every day, opening the store, closing the store and then opening it again. The same routine every morning and every evening – long, tiring days – every day of the year. Yet, my old man wasn't a boring and ordinary fellow. He was complex and mysterious. He didn't want anyone to see too deeply inside him. It was nearly impossible to get to know him. This extraordinary book by Mr. Russo brought me back to all those thoughts in such a wonderful, both playful and painful way.

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