One of my favorite books from recent years is Richard Russo’s Empire Falls. Unfortunately, the problem with reading your favorite book of an author’s first is that the others may not quite live up to it. But Bridge of Sighs comes a little closer than some other Russo novels to my initial delighted feelings about Empire Falls. (I know, I’m a bit behind the times with this one.) This novel shares some of the same themes as Empire Falls and is set in a similar working-class, industrial small town, this time in upstate New York.
The novel is narrated principally by Lou Lynch, one of three main characters. Lou is writing a novel about his life, even though he admits it will probably be boring. The son of Lou, an optimistic, cheerful if not very bright milk man turned convenience store owner, and Tessa, a sharp, insightful bookkeeper, Lou has always felt as if his parents are in conflict, and he is on his dad’s side. We understand, though, that Tessa is not really in conflict with her husband and son, she just wants them to see reality as it is, not as they would like it to be.
Seeing things as they are is also a problem for Lou’s best friend Bobby. At least, Lou thinks of Bobby as his best friend, but that is one more thing Lou doesn’t see clearly. Bobby’s father bullies his mother, who is eternally pregnant. She runs away every time she gets pregnant, but he always finds her and brings her back. It isn’t until late in the book that we find there is more than one way to look at their relationship.
The book begins when Lou is sixty and traces back through his childhood and adolescence through the device of his novel. The adult Lou is married to his high school sweetheart Sarah, and they are soon to take a trip to Italy, hoping to visit Bobby, now Robert Noonan, a famous American painter who lives in Venice. But Robert isn’t answering Lou’s letters letting him know they are coming. This trip is an anxious one for both Lou and Sarah, Lou because he has hardly ever left his home town, and Sarah because she once had to decide between Lou and Bobby.
In the background is the story of the small town of Thomaston, an industrial backwater dominated by a tannery, the dyes of which used to color the river waters differently each day and resulted in high levels of cancer in the community. The town is dying. The tannery has finally closed.
The town is divided into three areas that are widely separated by class, even though Thomaston’s richest citizens are probably big fish in a small pond. As the story moves into the present time, the wealthier citizens begin moving away. But Lou doesn’t see any reason not to love his town or his life. Sarah has always wanted to travel and experience more, but they have stayed put.
The Lynch family, as Russo creates it, is a warm and welcoming one. Both Bobby and Sarah are attracted as youngsters to the little store by the promise of a substitute family, Sarah’s own being particularly bizarre. In the modern-time story, Lou’s father is dead, and his uncle Declan has gone away, but Lou’s son works in the store, and his mother still lives above it.
As the story moves back and forth in time, I felt myself occasionally tiring of Lou’s reminiscences, especially of junior high, where he spends an inordinate amount of time. As Bobby reflects when he returns to town during his senior year after being sent off to military school, he doesn’t understand why Lou continues to bring up those years as if they were good times when actually they were horrible and Lou was not treated well at school. I personally was much more interested in the current-time story, of which there is much less, even though I understood that its seeds are in the past. But then again, the fact that Lou dwells on the past is part of the point of the novel.
This novel possesses a few characteristics of postmodernism, without being exactly postmodern. Here perhaps Russo is dabbling in some of the techniques without going full-thrust for its inventiveness and irony. The alternating point of view among Lou, Bobby, and Sarah, the alternating time streams, the metafiction, and Lou’s essential untrustworthiness as a narrator, not because he is not truthful to us, but because he is not truthful to himself, all are postmodern techniques. Within the time and narrator changes, though, Russo proceeds with a traditional narrative style.
Russo’s writing is leisurely, and he likes to muse. Still, he creates some complex and attractive characters and makes you want to contemplate their lives with them. He is also one of the few writers willing to explore the theme of class in America, a theme that is very important to this novel.