Monday, May 25, 2009

Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo

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Sometimes, even with writers whom I like quite a lot, I will arrive at a point where I am convinced that I have gotten from them what I can. I had assumed that to be the case with Richard Russo when I read Empire Falls. After all, he is not a great writer, nor does he have a profound understanding of human nature or of social-political history. And so it was almost an accident that I picked up and began to read his latest novel, Bridge of Sighs. I am now convinced that this is his best novel so far in its ability to create deep, convincing characters, in its understanding of life, and in its social commentary.

Russo’s male characters almost always have a gruffly good-natured quality to them—men who know they have not measured up even to their own expectations, but who muddle along in their relationships and their lives trying to do better while never deceiving themselves into believing that they are more or better than they really are. Usually, they have problems with commitment to spouses or even to lovers, and suggest that the women in their lives would, most likely, be better off without them. Most of them seem to have a kind of Walter Matthau charm to them, likable partly because of their own constant and critical self-analysis. Louis C. Lynch, the lead character in this novel, is again a character in that mold, almost morbidly self-reflective, but in my estimation he rises above the others both in his understanding of the relationships in which he finds himself and in understanding himself.

Louis C., maliciously nicknamed Lucy by his childhood friends, is a slow-talking, deliberate and lonely boy. Like his father, Lou senior, Lucy is big, good-natured and so measured in his delivery that he seems to others to be dimwitted. Add to this that he sometimes has spells, periods of time when he more-or-less blanks out, neither speaking nor moving, and it is no wonder that the people in his small upstate New York town, Thomaston, think he is at the very least odd. His best, and for much of his young life, only friend, Noonan, is Lucy’s opposite in almost all ways. Feisty, brave and dashing, Noonan is chosen by Lucy, latched onto, but always chafes at the affection and attention Lucy beams at him, and is relieved when his abusive, authoritarian father insists that he terminate the friendship. That Lucy’s love for Noonan is unrequited seems only to intensify his obsession, and he manages at a few different periods of their young lives to bring Noonan back into the sphere of his life until finally Noonan escapes not only from Lucy, but from Thomaston and even from the U.S., ending up as a relatively famous painter in Venice.

The reader is introduced to the characters as adults. Lucy has remained his entire life in Thomaston, content and seeing no reason to leave, and is looking backwards over his life while writing a clumsy memoir. His wife, Sarah, also an artist, and far less content with their sequestered small-town lives, insists finally on a trip to Europe where the couple hopes to meet up with the long departed Noonan. As Lucy looks back, the reader is invited to look at the close and loving relationship Lou junior has with his optimistic and upbeat father and at his more troubled relationship with his much more astute and realistic mother, Teresa, or Tessa as she is called by Lou senior. Tessa and Sarah have much in common; both are wise and efficient, understanding the na├»ve optimism of their husbands and taking steps to avoid the pitfalls that the men’s naivete would otherwise land them in. From the first, Tessa understands that her son’s love and devotion to his friend Noonan is almost all one-sided, and she does what she can to protect him from his own blindness. Likewise, she understands the financial ineptness of her husband, and does what she can to keep the family from ruin.

Through these two strong female characters, Russo is able to make clear (as he does in his earlier works) his conviction that women have an emotional intelligence that most men lack. He also paints his women as stronger than the men, more able to deal with the necessities of life. While the men dream and founder, the women have families, make decisions, and persevere. But there is a price for their loyalty and realism:
They’d both loved their husbands more than anyone even suspected, and in return had been adored. But each of them had walked through and open door, then heard it slam shut behind them and the mechanism lock. While neither regretted her decision, knowing the door was locked was disconcerting just the same, as was the fact that their husbands, if they’d heard that same slam and click, seemed untroubled by it. If anything, knowing that there was no turning back was reassuring to them.
While it is obvious that Russo admires the women in his own novels (and no doubt in his own life), there is a kind of essentialism that I find troublesome. I think he tends to forgive his male characters (and himself) for their faults in relationships by suggesting that it simply cannot be helped—men, given who they (by nature) are, simply cannot cope as their better and stronger women can. It is women who must finally understand the children, and help the men try to understand themselves. And while he suggests that men are probably more trouble than they are worth, something rings false in his analysis.

A commentator for the New York Post remarks that this book is very much in the Russo pattern but “is a departure into deeper, almost philosophical realms.” Yes, and why say “almost philosophical,” as if only philosophers and not mere writers of fiction can do philosophy? Russo does wax philosophical in this novel, and he does try to deal with real problems of economic oppression and racism and sexism, even daring at a few points to write in the voice of black characters. While there is still something myopic and unsophisticated about his political commentary, this is a novel that tries to look back and sum up what has occurred in this country in the last century, tries to expose some of the rifts in the American dream. Certainly, the novel has an intellectual maturity I did not find in his earlier works while preserving the humor and light-handedness of those novels.

Let me leave you with a longish quote that I think evidences some of Russo’s philosophical maturation in this book:
Odd, how our view of human destiny changes over the course of a lifetime. In youth we believe what the young believe, that life is all choice. We stand before a hundred doors, choose to enter one, where we’re faced with a hundred more and then choose again. We choose not just what we’ll do, but who we’ll be. Perhaps the sound of all those doors swinging shut behind us each time we select this one or that one should trouble us, but it doesn’t. Nor does the fact that the doors often are identical and even lead in some cases to the exact same place. Occasionally a door is locked, but no matter, since so many others remain available. The distinct possibility that choice itself may be an illusion is something we disregard, because we’re curious to know what’s behind the next door, the one we hope will lead us to the very heart of the mystery. Even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary we remain confident that when we emerge, with all our choosing done, we’ll have found not just our true, destination but also its meaning....
But at some point all of that changes. Doubt, born of disappointment and repetition, replaces curiosity. In our weariness we begin to sense the truth, that more doors have closed behind than remain ahead, and for the first time we’re tempted to swing the telescope around and peer at the world through the wrong end ... To see a life back to front, as everyone begins to do in middle age, is to strip it of its mystery and wrap it in inevitability, drama’s enemy ... And yet not all mystery is lost, nor all meaning.

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