Richard Russo again explores the decay of small-town life in America, and although he’s done this brilliantly before (Empire Falls, obviously, went over pretty well, right?), I don’t think he’s ever hit us over the head with his ideas on why small towns have failed as he does in Bridge of Sighs. And I still can’t decide whether it’s effective or…well…a bit much, and a bit overkill, considering his other novels.
This book focuses on two main characters, Lucy and Noonan, boyhood friends from a small industrial town in upstate New York (where else, Russo?) whose lives took vastly different paths. Lucy cannot leave the town, despite the death of all industry there, and despite the slow collapse of the town’s sense of community, because he still hopes for the best and fears a life outside the town of Thomaston. He’s had trouble making friends, but is incredibly loyal to all those who have ever shown him affection, and is annoyingly good-natured, refusing to acknowledge the bad in anyone. Noonan, on the other hand, has always been an agnostic, a cynic, raised by a terrible set of parents and determined to leave Thomaston and do…something, anything. He winds up becoming a famous painter and travels throughout Europe.
It’s an interesting strategy that Russo has chosen to explore the small town of Thomaston and its stranglehold on the people who have never left (one character escaped, the other didn’t, and we get both points of view), but the novel’s main problem is this: it begins with the narrative moment of Lucy telling his readers that he will soon travel to Venice to meet back up with Noonan. Then, Lucy begins a 500-page narrative of his childhood, interspersed only occasionally with present-day scenes, which further the narrative moment of Lucy and Noonan meeting again. But, like Eugenides’ Middlesex, the author becomes so engrossed in the past narrative that the present narrative (the reason we continue reading, the moment we are waiting to truly see) takes a backseat, and–not to ruin the ending–never really pays off in a way that we were hoping for. Oh, it’s all well-written, and it’s all engaging, but the author sets us up for something, then gets wrapped up in what amounts to a sub-plot or an extended flashback.
Russo, as I mentioned earlier, also becomes more overt in his theories of small-town decay than ever before. The decline of Empire Falls was tragic, yes, and extremely well-developed. The decline of Thomaston is equally tragic, but it is also violent (we have blood-red water, cancer, house foreclosures, and an overall feeling of overwhelming pain and melancholy with the fate of this town) and unforgiving. We get the sense that all small towns are doomed because large corporations open up shop, close down all local businesses, bankrupt or drive away all the former businesspeople, convert all jobs to low-paying retail or service, and force all smart people to want to get away as quickly as possible.
This is Russo’s theory, it seems, and to be honest, it’s not far off in our current culture. But I don’t think it has ever felt so pessimistic, so insurmountable, as it does in Bridge of Sighs. That doesn’t make the book unlikable, but it does tell me that Russo needs to find new subject matter, and quick. I can’t take another Bridge of Sighs; I need my Russo to have some humor, some hope.