Sunday, August 24, 2008

To Stay or Leave a Dying Town

Richard Russo’s latest novel “Bridge of Sighs” is about a dying town in upstate New York, Thomaston. The town is located on the banks of a polluted river where the local Tannery dumped poisonous refuse until it finally closed. This poison would later be linked to the cancer that attacked many of the residents.

In an interview with Book Tour, Mr. Russo describes the book as one about two boys, one who stayed in the dying town and one who left. The author is from a very similar town in upstate New York, called Gloversville. He sees himself in reality, as the boy who left, but in his mind, as the boy who stayed. The protagonist, Lou C. Lynch, known as Lucy, is 60 years old and looking back on his life, remembering his boyhood friend, Bobby Marconi, who left Thomaston at age 18 and became an expatriate painter in Venice. Lucy’s wife, Sarah, also grew up in Thomaston and was in love with both Lucy and Bobby. Mr. Russo talked about the profound relationship that both boys had with their fathers. Lucy adored his easy going, optimistic father and Bobby loathed his mean-spirited, bully of a father.

Mr. Russo talked about his characters in relationship to how deeply people think. Were his characters capable of introspection? He believes that depth of feeling is common to all people whether or not they have the voice to express them. People do not have to be educated to have sophisticated thoughts.

“Bridge of Sighs” was also an exploration of the father and son relationship in some ways because Russo’s parents divorced when he was young. Like Lucy, Russo never wanted to leave Gloversville until he went away to college. Lucy was a timid boy who the town bullies locked in a truck and left on the banks of the river. That episode began strange “spells” that plagued Lucy his entire life.

Lucy, now the mayor, is writing a memoir of his life in Thomaston as he and his wife are planning a trip to Venice. But, Lucy never really wanted to go on the trip because he found a letter that Sarah had written to Bobby, who was now known as the famous painter, Robert Noonan. He replaced Sarah’s letter with a local newspaper article because he had always suspected that Sarah was in love with Bobby.

But why did the smart, savvy Sarah stay and marry Lucy? The book explores the extremes. She could stay with the safe and dull Lucy or leave with the dynamic, engaging Bobby. Sarah chose to stay. She loved the Lynch family, the safety of Thomaston and the stability of the Lynches, something she lacked in her life. Lucy and his father both choose smart, strong women.

The overall theme of the novel seemed to be, “What was the difference between those who stayed and those who left?” Lucy’s acerbic, mother, Tessa, said, “People don’t change. Don‘t confuse growing up with changing.” Things change around you but you don’t change. The Tannery closed, giant grocery stores came to the town, people moved away and men lost their jobs. The characters had to adapt, but whether they left or stayed, they didn‘t really change.

As the story is ending, Both Bobby and Sarah are painting the Bridge of Sighs. It is the bridge in Venice, where the prisoners walked across on their way to execution. They walked to the their known fate and their sighs were echoed in the walls of Venice. In some ways it is a depressing or sad book because Russo is saying the characters chose their own poison. Russo describes the dramas that occurred as the Lucy, Bobby and Sarah grew up and he shows how those dramas led them to a sad understanding of life as it really is. But, as Richard Russo tells us, he has learned from the great writers to use a large scope of characters, who go to dark places with humor and irreverence, to tell an interesting, engaging, small town epic.

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