Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Long Wait, A Big Reward

As you can see from the sidebar, Richard Russo is one of my favorite writers. I've been wanting to read his new book, Bridge of Sighs, ever since I heard about it. I finally managed to snag it this past trip to the library, and just finished it. It was worth the wait.

This is another one of his books set in upstate New York. Two of his previous books were set in Mohawk, NY (one of them was even titled after that town), one in Pennsylvania, and one in Maine. Nobody's Fool was set in the fictional upstate town North Bath, and I made a game of trying to figure out which real town it corresponds to. I decided that geographically, it's Ballston Spa: about ten minutes south of the much more prosperous Saratoga Springs and within an easy half-hour drive of both Albany and Lake George as the book specifies, but that Russo was also inspired by the abandoned grand bath resorts of Sharon Springs, between Amsterdam and Utica. I haven't made up my mind where Thomaston is yet, although based on the presence of the tannery and the river, I'm going to guess it's Gloversville. Since I know the state well, this is part of the fun of the books for me, the shock of recognition that someone else knows of the same small towns as I do. Near the end of the book, they referenced the museum where a friend of mine works, and I enjoyed the thought that people all over the country will read mention of it.

As I said yesterday, the book is slow to start. On the surface, our first narrator Lou (or Lucy, as he's often called) couldn't be more ordinary or boring. Lives in the same small town in which he grew up, married to his high school sweetheart, running the family business, along with his adult son and daughter-in-law. But in Richard Russo's books, things are never quite what they appear. The story is not just of Lou, but of Bobby, with whom he had a complex, one-sided friendship. Lou is telling his life story, with Bobby and his wife Sarah interjecting their points of view intermittently.

The story is rich with what I'd call realistic nostalgia. Lou, at 60, has clearly never really gotten over the death of his father decades earlier. The passages about Big Lou, a man simple and sweet in his optimism and faith in humanity, are glowing with joy and longing. But all the bad stuff is there too: the poverty, the strict social stratification of Thomaston, the ugly, violent relationship between Bobby's parents that was mirrored in countless homes around town. Perhaps the best example of this is Lou's recollection of the YMCA dances all the junior-high kids attended. In his first description of them, the poor, tough boys from the West End were too cool to show up much before the dance was almost over, preferring to do their own thing until it was time to exhibit their coolness before the rest of the kids, who just liked to pretend. Several chapters later, he acknowleges that coolness had nothing to do with it, that they couldn't pay to get in and hung around outside until the cash boxes were put away and the dance almost over, even though he still remembers them as cool and tough.

Another thing about this book that I liked is that it's the story of a town as well as of the people in it. The fate of Thomaston mirrors that of many upstate New York communities. Even those, like myself, too young to remember it can't help but feel sad as they drive through towns like Schenectady and Utica and notice how you could tell it used to be really nice. The Thomaston of Lou's youth is one of the days when the factories were still open and there was still a good part of town, and more of the town's residents were making something of their lives than weren't. The present-day Thomaston is the "after" one that I recognize, after the cancer rates rose and the factories pulled out and Victorian mansions with stained-glass windows and hardwood floors sit on the market at $15,000 for years. Sadly, that could describe many upstate New York communities.

This is a rather long book (500+ pages) and would make an excellent winter project. In almost any book of that length, there are things that the story could have done without, and this one is no exception. The racial subplot stands out in my mind. The ending, where the decades-old pent-up attraction between Bobby and Sarah fizzles before the cork is even let out, was also somewhat of a disappointment. But all in all, it was an excellent read and will probably become one of my favorite Richard Russo books.

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