Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo.
I reached out to one of my favorite college professors, Ed Thompson, several years ago when I hit something of a reader’s block. I had taken on several reading projects to challenge myself, and I was done with them. The last of these was to read Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy. I then rounded that project off by reading McCarthy’s The Road and, finally, Blood Meridian. If you know one, some, or all of those books you will understand why I might have been a little wrung out.
(And, by the way, to the Amazon reviewer who gave Blood Meridian a one-star review in part because it had a 163-word sentence, you need to put on your big boy shoes and march over to another Amazon department.)
Anyway, Professor Thompson answered me thoughtfully. I had explained that McCarthy and some others had opened my eyes to gritty realistic fiction after years of reading short fiction masters such as Andrew Dubus, cornerstone male American authors such Updike and Roth, post-modernists such as Heller and Borges and magical realists such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He pointed me to Richard Ford and Richard Russo.
I had bought Ford’s The Sportswriter more than a decade before. I knew it was considered a great novel. As a once-aspiring sportswriter, I should have been more drawn to it (though perhaps that’s one of the reasons I didn’t read it). Professor Thompson also pointed out it was the beginning of a trilogy and I liked trilogies. I had read the border trilogy of course and I had read the Rabbit trilogy before it became a tetralogy.
I read Ford’s trilogy and I was deeply moved. Even more than that, I was knocked off my literary moorings. For more than two decades I had considered Andre Dubus my favorite writer–and really without peer for me. I read everything he wrote and reread favorite stories many times over. I taught “The Winter Father” and “Killings” more than a dozen times. Each time I would reread the stories, recast my notes, and read selected reviews literary criticism. I held other favorite stories such as “If They Knew Yvonne” and “Townies” closer. I considered Dubus’ novella trilogy (We Don’t Live Here Anymore, Adultery, and Finding a Girl in America) to be the greatest fiction writing produced in English.
Ford kicked that all to the curb, but more on that another time.
I concede several things about my reading. It tilts heavily male. It is almost exclusively literary fiction. It is melancholy. It features themes and subjects like sex, religion, violence, and the nature of masculinity. It is also not everyone’s cup of tea. I know this because I know the broader canon and I know my friend’s tastes. I also work in publishing and have some sense of the very broad marketplace. People read many, many things besides what I read.
Amazon reviews are an unreliable barometer. Many reviewers have clearly not read the books. Many who have shouldn’t have. Reviews whipsaw from ecstatic to flaming. Still, when a novel such as The Sportswriter has an average review of 3.2, I know not to give it as a gift for Christmas or recommend it to a casual acquaintance. Years ago I recommended a collection of Dubus’ short stories to a lovely friend of my wife. I thought she would enjoy it. She hated it. That was the last book I recommended to someone I didn’t know very well.
Russo is a warm and humorous writer, even as he mines some of the same themes as people like Ford. Some of his writing–including Bridge of Sighs and Empire Falls–is also panoramic while Ford is often internal. More characters fill the pages, and while many are of a type, Russo is generous to them, their quirks serving as introductions to their experiences and their background. When his characters stumble and even fail, Russo often gives them a soft landing. They might be victims of ne’er-do-well fathers or vindictive spouses. Many are victims of economic upheaval but they are loyal to the old mill towns that are collapsing before their eyes. Their own generosity doesn’t allow them to make the grim conclusion that Greg Brown makes in his wonderful song, “Our Little Town,” They say it’s dyin’ now and there ain’t a thing we can do.
Bridge of Sighs is 642 pages, and while it focuses on one of Russo’s archetypal small towns and its inhabitants, it adds four interesting layers.
- The book goes back and forth in time.
- It follows one character abroad
- The primary narrator is relating the states-side story as he himself is also writing the same history he is relating (though by his appraisal in another form).
- The story abroad is told by a third-person narrator
You can imagine, if you know Russo, that these worlds–here and abroad, past and present, fictional and nonfictional–are destined to collide.
I am about halfway through. I am busy but will certainly finish it Christmas week, then I hope to read a couple of books that my boys will give to me. They have good taste in books.