Bridge of Sighs.

I started Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs ready to joke in my writeup that, in book reviews, “ambitious” is merely a euphemism for “long.” I’ve read the five novels that precede this one on Russo’s bibliography, including the amazing, Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls, and while I think his books are smart, funny, and deep, I did not consider them “ambitious.” Bridge of Sighs, as you have probably guessed by now, is a work of great ambition, a sprawling modern epic with multiple foci, exploring themes of love, betrayal, mortality, meaning, and hate across more than fifty years in a small, dying town in upstate New York.

That town, Thomaston, is the birthplace of the two men at the center of the book, narrator Lou C. (“Lucy,” a nickname he never wanted or liked) Lynch and his on-and-off childhood friend Bobby Marconi. Shifting among three narratives, Russo tells their stories, weaving them together and tearing them apart, using Lucy’s own memoir-in-progress for the history of Lucy, Bobby, and their incredibly different families; jumping to the third person for the present-day perspective on Lucy’s strained marriage to his high school sweetheart, the almost too-perfect Sara; and Bobby, now a world-renowned painter living in Europe and contemplating the nearing end of his career and his life while he fights an undetermined health issue.

Russo eschews the easy plot device of having everything look perfect on the surface, only to shock the reader by showing how imperfect everything is; he makes it clear from the start that Lucy and Bobby are both damaged people, and lets the gradual revelations of major events from their childhoods provide the surprises, tossing in a little narrative greed as he goes. You don’t actually find out what happened between Bobby and his father until roughly 90% of the way through the book, but you can start to create and fill in an outline just by watching the evolution of their relationship. Lucy presents himself at the start as a married father and successful local businessman, but how successful and how happy are questions that open up as the story develops. Complicating his history and tying the two estranged friends together is Sara, who came from a broken home of her own, adopted the Lynches as a surrogate family as she dated Lucy, but found herself drawn to the raw, emotional Bobby when he reappears for their senior year of high school.

The contrast between the safe, steady affection between Sara and Lucy and the seething rage that emanates from Bobby is a central theme for Russo, who never seems to favor the measured (or bottled up) Lynch style over the open, dangerous emotions of Bobby:

It was amazing, when you thought about it, how effortlessly hate slipped into the space reserved for love and vice versa, as if these two things, identical in size and shape, had been made compatible by design. How satisfying a substitute each was for the other.

But rather than mire the story in a love triangle, or a tragic romance, Russo folds that into the comfortable ground of the yearnings of kids in a small, failing industrial town – Thomaston’s main industry, a tannery, slowly heads for extinction all while polluting the river and raising the town’s cancer rates – for something more than the hamlet can offer them. In Bridge, however, Russo moves those sentiments around; sometimes it’s the kids racing to get out of Dodge, but as often it’s their parents hoping their children leave for something better, all while they try to figure out a way to survive financially in a local economy that keeps shrinking. Lucy’s father, a hopeless optimist, loses his milkman job to modernization, only to buy a corner market as A&P locates the town’s first supermarket out by the highway. That corner market becomes the central hub of action as the kids go through junior high and high school – taking the place of the diner that lies at the heart of most Russo novels – but the work the Lynches put into it, and the role it ends up playing in their lives, symbolizes the work required to keep a marriage of two seemingly incompatible people together, even in unfavorable circumstances.

Another theme, perhaps coming from Russo’s own advancing age, is one of regret even for a life lived well – a “road not taken” question that Bobby and Sara in particular end up facing, although Lucy has his own questions about what might have been and even his mother and uncle (the roguish Dec, a classic Russo character) end up in the act. Sara’s parents seemed very two-dimensional, but I thought they might represent Russo’s unflattering takes on two extreme life paths – her angry, faithless, emotionally distant father on one side, and her unsatisfiable, self-serving, emotionally stunted mother on the other – that, I suppose, help explain why Sara is so grounded, so clear, and so able (mostly) to be happy with where she is and what she has.

If I have a criticism of Bridge of Sighs, it’s that Russo’s trademark humor is so much less in evidence. If Straight Man is his funniest work, this is probably his most serious. The gags are often little verbal jabs, rather than the slapstick and broad farce that characterizes his earlier novels:

After all, it wasn’t just people in big cities who had big dreams. Wasn’t her father himself a perfect example? Though he considered himself an urbanite, he’d grown up, as her mother had delighted in reminding him back when they were still living as husband and wife, on Staten Fucking Island.

I laughed, but hey, if you haven’t been caught in traffic on the Staten Island Expressway, that might not be quite so funny.

I’m barely doing the serious side of this book justice, however; it’s deeper and more literary than even Empire Falls, even if it’s not quite as exhilarating a read. The prose is classic Russo, as are the many full-fleshed characters, the setting, and the very realistic dramas that drive the book. If it’s a little less witty than normal, he has at least made up for it through his ambition.

Next up: I finished Dave Jamieson’s Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession, which I would certainly recommend to those of you who collected cards in your youths or are simply interested in baseball history; and have just barely begun Abdelrahman (or Abdul Rahman or Abd el-Rahman) Munif’s Cities of Salt­, which appears on the Novel 100 list at #71.