No contemporary author more precisely captures the hardscrabble spirit of blue collar workers in America's mill towns than Richard Russo. His characters may rail against change and their triumphs seem pale against the garish Technicolor of our tin plated times. If they occasionally falter, they persevere and that alone is a kind of victory. They never loose the sense of caring that they have for each other, something that seems to be fading from our culture like the image on a photograph left too long in the sun. Some degree of condescension always seems to find its way into the term "blue collar." It overlooks the fact that it was the spirit and determination of these people that, among other things, built this country, won two world wars, and still represents what is worth cherishing in America. Without them, white collars couldn't remain nearly as white.
All of these facets are expanded upon in Russo's Mohawk, Nobody's Fool, Empire Falls, andBridge of Sighs. The author maintains a sense of optimism that ultimately prevails over the technological traumas that threaten the livelihoods, and thus the lives, of his vital, flesh and blood characters.
The chief dispenser of optimism in Bridge of Sighs is Louis Patrick Lynch -- "Big Lou" to his friends. His friends include just about everyone he encounters in Thomaston, New York, a mill town located not far from Albany. Lou is reluctant to concede the fact that his days as a milkman, delivering his product in shiny bottles as the sun begins to inch its way over the horizon, are numbered.
If Lou's indomitable spirit might be likened to a helium balloon, it falls to his wife, Tessa (as it does to many wives), to keep that balloon more or less tethered to the ground. She is something less than pleased when Lou buys a faltering neighborhood grocery store with the unlikely name of Ikey's. Typically, Lou is determined to make the place a great success, despite the ominous appearance of an A&P supermarket in the area. Just as typically, Tessa, while vowing never to set foot in the place, nevertheless applies her bookkeeping skills in an effort to put off what she regards as Ikey's almost divinely ordained failure.
There are a multitude of memorable characters in Bridge of Sighs, but the story basically revolves around three of them. Louis Charles Lynch, Jr. has his father's abiding good nature, but it is tempered with a healthy dose of his mother's pragmatism. Saddled with the stigma of being called "Lucy" after his kindergarten teacher read his name as Lou C. to the delight of his classmates, the boy was later the victim of a hateful prank inflicted upon him by other children. Although the incident leaves scars that never completely heal, Lou finds a guardian angel of sorts in Bobby Marconi, a cryptic tough kid from a very troubled family. The friendship assures Lou safe passage over previously treacherous bridges, in both literal and metaphorical terms. The relationship between them lasts a lifetime, despite Bobby's eventual flight from Thomaston and the fact that both men love Sarah Berg, the woman who becomes Lou's wife.
Bobby is the book's most atypical character and he was also, in my estimation, the one whose life was ultimately the saddest. Adopting his mother's maiden name of Noonan, he achieves world recognition as a painter and consequent success on a level that most people would sell their souls to attain. I sensed Russo's constant admonition that the women, the fame, and the money were all exacted at a tremendous cost. If there is one word that I would use to describe Bobby's life, it is solitary, a condition that is anathema to this particular author's vision of a worthwhile existence.Bridge of Sighs occasionally travels to Bobby's home in Venice, Italy, one of the most classically beautiful cities in the world, but its heart remains firmly implanted in Ikey's. I suspect that Mr. Russo's own heart has never wandered too far from places exactly like it.
Being a cynic by nature, I was waiting for this consistently marvelous book to take a wrong turn. That opportunity presented itself towards the conclusion, with the introduction of an African American child into the extended Lynch family. Suddenly, the iceberg of sentimentality loomed directly ahead. I shouldn't have worried. Mr. Russo deftly avoided collision and Kayla assumed an honored place among the others.
I had the very great pleasure of introducing Richard Russo when he presented a reading from Bridge of Sighs here at the Northshire Bookstore recently. He was gracious and open, conspicuously free of the important author affectations that I, perhaps unfairly, expected from a Pulitzer prize-winner. He told a standing room only audience that he writes books for the same reason that he reads them -- to find out what happens to the characters.
I remember when it occurred to me that I was nearing the end of the trail reading Larry McMurtry's epic western, Lonesome Dove. I had devoured the huge book up to that point, held spellbound by the adventures of Gus and Woordrow. I deliberately slowed my reading pace to postpone the unhappy, if inevitable, moment when they rode off into the last sunset. With the prospect of saying a final goodbye to the Lynch family, I did the same thing while I was reading Bridge of Sighs. It really is that good. ~ Reviewed by Alden Graves