Sunday, March 23, 2008

"Bridge of Sighs", Richard Russo

As I delved into Richard Russo's follow up to the Pulitzer Prize winning "Empire Falls", I had to remind myself that Russo is in the first instance a storyteller. His novels of small town America in decline and the everyday lives of people there are told at ground level. He introduces the reader to entire towns of people as well as the social landscape that they live in. He tells a thorough, multifaceted story.

I said remind myself of this because he is not in the tradition of others who have dealt insightfully with the everyday. Unlike Richard Yates, John Cheever, John Updike, more recently Jhumpa Lahiri, among others, his writing is not the key strength of his work. Magic paragraphs or sentences, descriptions that have nuance or insight that is completely unexpected, stories or chapters that wrap up in a way that is bracing, these are not Russo's trade. He uses writing to create a mosaic of experience and lets readers see if they are comfortable.

On pages 129 and 130 of the 528 page "Bridge of Sighs", he pretty much gives up the book like someone talking over the dining room table, setting the stage for everything to follow, and what follows are a few excerpts:

"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... Even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary we remain confident that when we emerge, with all of 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 doubt 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...Larger patterns emerge, individual decisions receding into insignificance...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...And yet not all mystery is lost, nor all meaning...somehow Bobby actually managed to do what we all imagine we might back when we're young...Bobby alone invented both a self and a life to live it."

I still kept reading believe it or not, and despite knowing that Russo's greatest heroes are eventually not characters like "Bobby". Perhaps the small town milieu that Russo describes resonated clearly enough to keep me going, and eventually I of course wanted to know what happened. It has some staying power, which is good enough.


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