Monday, September 1, 2008

Paper Delivery: Bridge of Sighs, Richard Russo


None of the arrows found in the standard quiver of contemporary fiction stick to Richard Russo. He is perhaps America's least postmodern writer of serious fiction. And yet, his not-wacky, not-inventive novels continue to win awards (and readers).
Russo's most recent book, Bridge of Sighs, marks the debut for a new regular feature here at TWR--the paperback release.

Sure, the hardback publication gets the spotlight, the review in the New York Times Review of Books and all of the author shwag, but for most of us, the real event happens when a popular, well-received book hits the shelves for $11 or $12. Plus, the paperback version is lighter, easier to fold, and more likely to get passed on to a friend (or student).

Russo is the paperback of American fiction. I don't know what that means exactly except that he is more accessible, more easy going--more regular than the average hardback novelist appearing in east coast review publications. If novels could walk around the house, Russo's would paddle in socks or slippers; if they could drink beer, his would guzzle Bud Light; if they could watch TV, they would flip on Rosanne.

Like his other books, Bridge of Sighs focuses on a seemingly under-performing middle-aged male in a small upstate New York town. The town, like the protagonist, has fallen on hard times but is still loved. This is a novel in which absolutely nothing happens except life. People make choices, they go to work, they screw up, and, most importantly, they figure out ways to keep bad luck from becoming collapse. It would be an oversimplification to say that the characters in Russo's novels "settle" for mediocre lives of near minimum wage, broken families, and under-cooked dreams. Rather, Russo takes his time, layering detail on top of detail, rounding out his story with the long, tedious, and often numbing realities of context.

Like Raymond Carver, Russo makes his fictional provenance the seemingly impossible country of the ordinary, but unlike Carver who opts for bursts of weirdness amidst a life of monotony, Russo shows how a life of monotony blurs weirdness and normalcy, making revelation not just elusive but embedded.

Russo is our Charles Dickens. He loves the underdog, the blue collar underdog, and in Bridge of Sighs, he gambles by making his narrator not entirely likeable. I mean, the narrator is fine, but he's not the brightest, not the most openminded, and not the most self-reflexive. But, he's good hearted, and he works hard, and he embodies mainstream and almost conservative American values with not even a trace of irony or resentment.

Though Bridge of Sighs is not as good as Empire Falls nor as funny as Straight Man it is a fine book. No one--and I mean no one--writes books like Russo any more. He is a voice from a different era helping make sense of this one. He is also one of the only writers who, consistently, tackles the incredibly complicated issue of economic class in American society. That he does so in rural (as opposed to urban) America is even more impressive and important.

If Bridge of Sighs contains a singular theme it's that human lives don't just happen. Events happen; people make decisions. The poorer people are, the more decisions they have to make in response to things that happen. Is the novel a map, a guidebook for weathering the storms of lower-middle class winds? Not really. It's more of a series of notes scrawled on bar napkins and sewn lovingly into pressed boards.

In a time of economic uncertainty, Bridge of Sighs borders on required reading. It reminds of us of the possibilities we all may soon find out of reach.

No comments:

Post a Comment