Monday, February 18, 2008

Books of 2008: "Bridge of Sighs"

At long last, I have finished a book in 2008! As it so happens, it’s so good that it will now be the book against which all others I read this year is judged. And though there’s a long way to go, it’s going to be difficult to dislodge this one from the top spot.

Bridge of Sighs is Richard Russo’s first novel since Empire Falls, which won a richly deserved Pulitzer Prize in 2002. The two books are similar in tone, and in setting – both take place in northeastern towns which, to put it charitably, have seen better days. Bridge of Sighs is set in Thomaston, New York, about which the book’s protagonist states,

Otherwise, as I say, you’re unlikely to have heard of Thomaston, unless you work in medical research, in which case you may remember the now-famous study done years ago to explain why our cancer statistics were off any actuarial chart. The principal culprit was, as we all suspected, the old tannery, boarded up these last forty years, which dumped its dyes and chemicals into the Cayoga Stream, which meanders through most of Thomaston before finally emptying into the Barge Canal five miles to the south.

Within that setting the story is told, mostly by Lou C. (Lucy) Lynch, now 60, who has lived in Thomaston his entire life and has rarely ventured beyond the city limits. Lucy and his wife Sarah are preparing for their first trip to Venice. There, they hope to meet up with Robert Noonan, a famous painter who left Thomaston as a high school senior, in a car driven by Lucy, and never returned. At that time Noonan was known as Bobby Marconi, and he, Lucy and Sarah were among the key figures in each other’s lives. The story of how Marconi became Noonan is one of the most important told in the novel.

Most of those stories are told in the context of a history of Thomaston that Lucy is writing. It is a history that tells less about the city than it does about Lucy and his friends, their families, and how their interactions set them upon the course of their lives. Along the way we meet Lucy’s parents, “Big Lou” and Tessa Lynch, his uncle Dec, Sarah Berg and her parents, Bobby Marconi and his family, as well as characters that are minor, in the sense of the amount of time they appear in the novel, but not for the importance that they play – people like “Three-Mock,” Nan Beverly, and Perry Kozlowski.

It’s a bittersweet novel, because none of these characters is perfect – in some cases, far from it. And because it’s clear throughout the narrative that their town is dying around them, the book has a sense of dread inevitability – you know that things aren’t going to turn out well for everyone (after all, Noonan/Marconi wasn't trying to escape just for the fun of it), and you know that – much like life itself – there won’t be a traditional “happy ending.” The closing chapters of the book take it in some completely unexpected directions - ones which are somewhat jarring, but ultimately push the story closer to a logical, if still somewhat bittersweet, resolution.

In a lesser book, there might have been a clear moral to the story - something simple like "only by leaving home can you really find your true self," or if you prefer, "only by staying true to your roots can you be true to your self." Nothing is quite that simple in Bridge of Sighs. Some people leave, and some people stay, for motives pure and otherwise. For no one is it a simple choice, and for no one does it feel as if it were, without question, the right thing to do.

As with Empire Falls, Russo’s writing is brilliant. He has a rare gift of being able to craft a narrative that leaps off of the page, using language that approaches perfection in its composition and style. This passage, which tells the story of when Lucy met Sarah for the first time, is probably my favorite in the entire book. They have both entered drawings into the school’s art contest: Lucy of Ikey’s, the store owned by his parents; and Sarah of her late brother.

Sarah’s entry was a pen-and-ink drawing of a boy who looked to be six or seven years old, and you could see why it got three bold checks in the upper-right-hand corner. True, it looked like there might be something wrong with the proportion of the boy’s features. One eye seemed slightly larger than the other, and they appeared not equidistant from his nose. But they were alive, those eyes. She wasn’t drawing how the boy’s eyes looked. It was like they were real, that he was using them to see with. They made you wonder what he was looking at. You could tell right away that it was located just off the edge of the drawing and also that it worried him. And you could tell where the light was coming from. Sarah’s name appeared in the lower-right-hand corner, printed impossibly small, as if whatever confidence she’d had went into the drawing itself, with none left over for a signature.

“My little brother,” she said. “He died of leukemia. I draw him all the time. We’ve got lots of photos, so I draw those. When I try to draw him from memory, it never looks like him.”

“I’m an only child,” I told her, feeling inadequate for having nothing to say about the dead boy.

“Me too,” she said. “Now, I mean. It’s just my dad and me.”

“What about your-”

“They’re separated. After Rudy died, she didn’t want to live here anymore. I live with her summers. My dad teaches at the high school.”

“Mr. Berg,” I said, making the connection. Even in junior high, we’d heard all about Mr. Berg. Everybody tried to stay out of his English classes. “I hear he’s strict,” I said, hoping to imply that this was why kids didn’t like him, not that he had bad breath or body odor. I waited, expecting Sarah Berg to confirm or deny her father’s strictness, since she was in a position to know. When she didn’t, I noticed that her drawing of her little brother had taken second prize, not first. Nan Beverly’s watercolor of a spaniel puppy had won first, but I noted an odd thing about the three checks in her margin. Two were identical, in black ink, whereas the third looked different, in blue ink, as if someone had added it after the fact. Had Sarah noticed this? Though I decided not to ask, that third check mark reminded me of Karen Cirillo’s unshakable conviction that our teachers had everything worked out in advance, the Borough kids catching all the breaks. Looking Sarah Berg over more closely, I was surprised to discover she was pretty, something I hadn’t noticed before. Also, that she had eyes like the boy in the drawing, one slightly larger and lower than the other. After leading me across the room, she’d dropped my hand, but I could still feel the warmth of hers and wished there was someplace else for her to lead me.

“You should’ve gotten first,” I told her. “Yours is a lot better.” I said this last quietly, even though we were alone in the room. It was the sort of statement that, if overheard, could lead to a fight in the school yard.

“Nan’s is good, too,” she said, and I could tell she liked having a reason to say her name, as if that might make them friends. Which made me like Sarah Berg even more.

I was still holding my drawing of Ikey’s, and this gave me an idea. “Maybe you could draw Ikey’s someday,” I suggested, immediately feeling foolish. Why would she want to draw that? “You could show me which parts should be white.” Dumber and dumber.

But she smiled, as if the only thing holding her back was just such an invitation, and when our eyes met I half expected Sarah’s to shift to some point off in the middle distance, like Karen Cirillo’s always did. But they didn’t. They stayed right on mine.

Which must mean, I concluded, that I was still there.

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