The Bard of Main Street
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Russo discusses fathers and sons, a vanishing America, and his latest book, “Bridge of Sighs.”
By Bill McGarvey
Six years after winning the Pulitzer Prize for his novel “Empire Falls,” Russo returns with “Bridge of Sighs,” another richly observed rendering of a fictional small town, Thomaston, N.Y. Like other worlds of Russo's making, both as a novelist and a screenwriter (“Nobody's Fool,” “Empire Falls”), Thomaston comes alive with the author's gift for enormously descriptive detail. In true Russo fashion, the characters populating Thomaston are complex, deeply human, utterly flawed, and entirely memorable.
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In “Bridge of Sighs,” Lucy--Lou C. Lynch, the novel's haplessly named protagonist--comments that you don't need to travel the globe to have a fulfilling life. You can live an incredibly rich life in a small town, which is a theme throughout your books, from "Mohawk" and “Nobody’s Fool” to “Empire Falls.” How conscious are you of that idea in your work?
I’ve always felt that what you know the first 12 or 15 years of life becomes your hard wiring, and that anything that happens after that is just tinkering with the software. So the world I knew before I graduated from high school went away to college, that’s the stuff I would never have to read up on or research. I am kind of my own authority on that world. I’ve taken forays to places like Venice, as I do in this book, but when I do I’m just a tourist. This small world of my childhood is the world of my imagination, and it is, for this 58-year-old writer, perfectly rich. I feel like I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this world I live in imaginatively from novel to novel.
You mentioned Venice, where your new book's secondary plot takes place. It almost seemed like a stretch, being so different from your world. Did you feel like you needed to break out of small-town U.S.A.?
It wasn’t so much that as I was breaking out of Lucy’s consciousness. Because Lucy is so conservative and so cautious as a result of what happened to him as a kid. He was terrorized by a group of young thugs who stuck him in a box. And as his mother says, "there's some part of that kid that never got out of the box." I think it’s no mistake that, confined in a small place as a child, Lucy has lived his entire life in Thomaston, N.Y., another small place. And he not only doesn’t have any desire to leave Thomaston, he's actually afraid to.
And as much as I love his world, and the world of Ikey Lubins [the corner store Lucy owns], it was getting claustrophobic. So he goes to Venice to visit Noonan [an old friend who became a famous artist], despite the fact that Venice is halfway around the world and Noonan is worried about many of the same things Lucy is.
Noonan worries that the water is polluted and may be causing his night terrors and bouts of inexplicable grief. And he’s wondering if you can possibly die from what you love—wondering if his paints are poisoning him, just as the residents of Thomaston are wondering if their water is polluted and whether they might be dying from what they love. So for me, leaving Thomaston and going to Venice was a relief from the claustrophobia I was feeling. I don’t know how you felt reading the book, but I felt confined writing it.
Absolutely. I also felt that, even though some have criticized your female characters as being one-dimensional, I think the true depth, in terms of love, comes from the women. Lucy and his father may be more open and colorful than Sarah, Lucy’s wife, and Tessa, his mother, but these women are less shallow in many ways.
They drive the action of the story, too.
And they are smarter and stronger than the men. Sarah and Tessa seem to form the moral center of that universe. Tessa is like “the catcher in the rye,” always catching everybody before they fall off a cliff.
Yes, and I don’t think there is any doubt that Ikey Lubins would have been an abject failure if Tessa had not come in and shown her husband how to run it. It’s really her imagination and smarts that save the family, just as Sarah is able to deal with her loose-cannon mother and out-of-control, ambitious father. It’s Sarah’s early training in caring for others that enables her to call her husband, Lucy, back from the “Bridge of Sighs.” She’s kind of been doing that all her days.
As with your previous books, “Bridge of Sighs” could almost be set in any year—in 1957 as easily as in 2007. How conscious are you of these sealed worlds, devoid of politics or technological revolutions, that you seem to create in your novels?
I’m very conscious of that. I think of places like Thomaston and Mohawk and Empire Falls as being essentially timeless, so I keep time references out of them as much as possible. I don’t even have my characters going to places like McDonald’s, because it seems like such a shortcut in the sense that if say “McDonald’s” everybody knows exactly what it looks like because everybody has been to one. I do describe a supermarket, called Ikey Lubins, because it is so idiosyncratic.
The one exception that fixes this novel in time is that it’s set during George W. Bush’s presidency, which I couldn’t leave out. Bush has this marvelous ability to radicalize people that don’t want to be radicalized [laughs].
Though your books are about small-town American life, they resonate with people in our globally connected world. How do you explain that?
I’d be only guessing, of course, but I think it’s a function of memory. I’ve always thought of my books as snapshots of an America that I love and that I see disappearing.
Hasn’t that world already disappeared in some ways?
We’re struggling with that, certainly. The characters in this novel have crossed Division Street from the poor end of town to the more affluent side. And Lucy, who is 60 when the novel opens, has fulfilled his father’s version of the American dream because he has a house in the borough. In a sense, this is the story of my family. My family crossed over our own Division Street into a prosperity that my grandfather probably never dreamed possible for me or my mother.
My mother worked at General Electric in Schenectady, commuting an hour both ways each day. She would arrive home at six, when I would've already eaten with my grandparents, and then she’d make herself dinner, do the laundry, and do whatever else needed to be done so I could go to school the next day. Then she was off to work again at six the morning, and she probably didn’t stop going till nine at night, so she worked as hard as anybody.
These were people who thought of work not as an obligation but as a privilege, and they took great pride in their work. They didn't expect to be rich at the end of the day, but they expected to be able to pay their bills and keep their heads up. My mother expected a certain loyalty from G.E., and it was a loyalty that doesn't exist any more, whether at G.E. or anywhere else. By the time my mother died this summer, America was a place she no longer knew. She didn’t recognize the greed or the sense of entitlement.
Nor did my father or my grandfather. The America that my father and grandfather fought for was something that, by the end of their lives, no longer existed. My grandfather actually bought the two-family home on the other side of Division Street when my mother got pregnant with me. The purpose in crossing Division Street wasn't just so my grandparents could have a nicer house in a better part of town, it was to provide a home for my mother, my father, and me.
That's akin to what happens to Lucy as a child. Though I assume you weren't locked in a trunk by thugs, right?
[Laughing] No, blessedly no. Or else we probably wouldn't be having this conversation.
Fathers and sons have close relationships in your books, especially this one. So while your mother was a hero to you, it sounds like your father was also a big part of your life.
Well, what I always tell people, and it's pretty much true, is that my love of literature, my love of books, my devotion to the life of the mind—the fact that I'm a writer—all those things derive from my mother. What my father gave me was something to write about [laughs]. He was a charming rogue, as feckless and undependable as the day was long. But he was more fun to be with than you could possibly imagine.
So he was a lot like Sully in “Nobody's Fool.”
Oh yeah. Sully and Sam Hall [“Risk Pool”] and then finally, later in life, like Max Roby [“Empire Falls”].
Were your parents big readers of your books?
My mother read all my books. My father died just before “Mohawk” came out, so he knew I was a writer and that I had a book on the way, but he never read it.
What did he think about you becoming a writer?
I think it tickled him because he was such a bullshitter extraordinaire, and I would come along and be just as full of shit, and yet I found a way to turn it into a tidy living, which he was never able to do. He did it all for free! [laughs.]
Did your mother ever comment on your writing and this sense you both shared of being alienated from the world?
She was incredibly proud of my work, but there’s a strange pact parents have with their kids. Though they want their kids to become educated and more affluent than they were, they also want them to stay the same and remain true to the values they were raised by. And they often don’t understand that those things are, if not impossible to reconcile, not entirely compatible.
I gave an address to the Colby graduates some years ago, and I told the parents that sending your kids to college is like putting them in the witness protection program. If they come out looking identifiably the same as they did when they entered, then something went terribly wrong. Many parents, especially lower-middle-class parents, want the best for their children but they don’t want them to change. My mother was very proud of the fact that I was a writer and living a more affluent life, and that her sacrifices and those of my grandfather had paid off. But in some ways, by moving into that different world, I’d become unrecognizable to her. But my fiction restored for her the kid that had changed so much.
So your mother felt you outgrew her world?
There were certain things that I think were hard for my mother to grasp because the changes were so great. The fact that my wife, Barbara, and I would fly off to Venice; the fact that our daughters both would go off to college and spend their junior years abroad. My mother never left the U.S. expect when she visited us in Arizona and went to a border town in Mexico.
My grandmother used to be envious of my grandfather because he served in two world wars, and got to go abroad! He was too young for the first war and too old for the second, but he served in both. He volunteered. In some ways, she never forgave him because she had to stay put, imagining that he was having a good time [laughs], kamikaze pilots were diving into his ship and her feeling was, “Yeah, well at least you got to see the world!”
She always wanted to go to Ireland. And here, her great granddaughters have been to far more places than my wife and I, and we’ve been to many more places than my mother. My grandmother never even made it to a border town in Mexico.
Toward the end of the book, a reporter interviews Lucy over the phone about Noonan, and Lucy comments on how brave his friend was as a kid. Then the reporter asks him, “Do you have to be brave to do what Noonan does…to be an artist?” And Lucy hangs up the phone. I wondered if that was you a little bit. There’s a romanticism for the past in your books, and many of your characters don’t exactly take life by the horns and tackle the future. Did you resonate with Lucy in that scene?
I’ve always felt midway between Lucy and Noonan. I have a great deal in common with both of them, which means I must be simultaneously timid and brave. I’ve always thought that writing novels, at least writing novels like mine, isn’t for the faint of heart. They take too long and you have to have a kind of chutzpah, as I write from the omniscient point of view, pretending to be God, looking into everyone’s thoughts. But it’s a different kind of courage than displayed by my father in Normandy, or by Noonan, who left everything he knows to move to Italy at age 18.
There’s also a sense of ritual, ceremony, and sacredness in your books. Is religion part of your life?
I was raised a Catholic, though I am not Catholic anymore. But what I have retained is the language of Catholicism. I think you're right. Noonan finds himself at age 60 suffering night terrors and inexplicable grief and, for reasons he doesn’t quite understand, he’s begun this painting of his father only to discover that it’s his own eyes looking back at him. He manages to finish that painting only when the light of Sarah’s painting begins to shine on it from the next easel.
And Noonan has become this nocturnal walker, strolling the streets of Venice in the same order every night. It’s become a ritual for him, or as he says, “almost like a prayer.” He walks these streets in the same order every night so that he’s able to sleep and paint.
And those strike me as if not religious statements then spiritual statements, because that’s what Noonan needs more than anything else for his life to have meaning—he needs to be able to paint. So he’s found rituals that allow him to use his imagination. And I think that goes back to the Greeks, and the way in which the Muses are part of the pantheon of gods. Those issues are all tied together, and they have been throughout Western thought and civilization.
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Bill McGarvey is the editor-in-chief of BustedHalo.com, where a version of this interview originally appeared. Bill is also a contributing editor at SoMA Review. His last piece was Sexless in the City.
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