Bridge of Sighs, Richard Russo, 2007
Russo’s new novel revisits many themes from his earlier work particularly Nobody’s Fool and Empire Falls, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for literature. Thomaston is a small upstate New York town founded by a slave owning Torrie whose main employer is the Tannery which is polluting the Cayuga River, poisoning the ground water, and maiming and killing the worthy local citizens. The town has four distinct districts separated, of course, by Division street, the west side for poor lower class people has seedy bars and is a little dangerous, the east side is for respectable working class people who are also poor but have some civic pride, the burrough where the owner of the tannery and other wealthier families live, and the hill for poor blacks. The story revolves around a small corner grocery on the east side struggling to stay afloat through three generations of optimistic, naive, simple, good hearted men who somehow manage to gain the love of smart, world wise women who actually make the store and their lives work. The New York Lottery allows the Lynch family grocery to stay viable in the face of supermarkets and the closed tannery and to enable the Lynches to buy two additional groceries. The poorer the area, the higher the revenue from the Lottery sales.
If the novel had been a few hundred pages shorter, it might have attracted more readers. But the novel is flawed in a couple of more fundamental ways for this reader who grew up roughly in the period depicted. First, the Vietnam war is raging but the only reference is to a minor character, a black kid who is beaten to a coma for sitting with a white girl is a theater and when he recovers goes to Vietnam to be killed; and the major character Noonan who escapes Thomaston (almost no one else does alive) possibly because he makes a girl pregnant, or because he beat his own father almost to death, or because he is escaping the draft; we never learn which it is. Russo seems to be saying it would take something as drastic as these three events combined to get anyone to leave this poisoned heaven.
This was the era of compulsory draft where every boy had to sign up at age 18 and was assigned a draft lottery number based on his birthday. (Voting age was 21!) To escape the draft, you had to be lucky (low lottery number), get a deferment to go to college like Bill Clinton or Dick Cheney, or leave the country in which case you became a wanted criminal. The first boy in this reader’s small, rural school (12 in my class) to be killed in the war was in 1960. Our classmate and school comedian enlisted in the Marines in 1961 and came home a year later a mental wreck requiring multiple hospitalizations. One classmate got a lucky lottery number, got married and stayed on his farm. The rest of the boys in our class all headed for college, unheard of in our rural community. No girls in our class went to college even the one with high grades. Such was the impact of Vietnam. By 1964, college war protests were gaining momentum even at cow college Washington State in isolated Pullman. The leader of our protests was a varsity wrestler, violinist with the University orchestra, and non religious conscientious objector. Upon graduation, he was sent to teach English in Laos where he survived daily secret bombings. He used to sit on the front porch playing his violin as the bombs fell. After his tour of alternate duty he returned home only to be drafted. When he refused, he was sent to prison.
In this era and under this pressure, we would talk endlessly about our options and what we would do when our time came. This reader received his draft notice after earning a masters degree at age 24. Discussed options for this eventuality included 1) pretend you are gay; 2) pretend you are a latent psychopathic serial killer who can’t wait for that rifle; 3) flunk the written test; 4) get the family doctor to invent a medical condition; etc.) This blogger played it straight figuring a good written score might get him a desk job like his older brother who spent the Korean war behind a desk at Fort Ord in Monterey because of his college degree. After the test, I was called into the commanding officer’s office who informed me I had the highest score ever seen at the Spokane board and asking why I didn’t go back to school. I went back to school. A coming of age novel set in this period cannot not deal with this. Yet there is nothing to indicate this was on anyone’s mind or that decisions about going to college or leaving the country were influenced by these ever present events.
The second problem is the poisonous tannery. Thomaston sounds a lot like Woburn Massachusetts site of the true story recorded in the book and movie A Civil Action where a group of young lawyers set out to prove legally that the tannery, now owned by a multinational corporation, was the cause of the miscarriages, birth defects, and widespread cancer killing so many of Woburn’s citizens. The events in A Civil Action took place in the late 1970′s but the Citizens of Woburn themselves had connected their health problems to the tannery’s pollution much earlier.
In Russo’s Thomaston no one seems to blame the tannery and its owners for their health problems. They are more concerned that the tannery will close and jobs will be lost. There are no lawyers or environmentalists anywhere in this book, although it is noticed by some that after the tannery was closed, fish came back to the River, some cancerous. This fatalism and resignation somehow rings false given the real example of Woburn. Is Russo trying to say that life in a bigoted, polluted small town is so good its worth risking miscarriages, birth defects, and early death from cancer to experience, or is he saying that those living in such places lack the awareness, imagination, or wherewithal to be able to escape their fate? I can’t tell.
And the one who got away to Canada? Noonan ends up in Venice, Italy, hotbed of contemporary art. There Noonan becomes a significant artist with a dealer and shows in New York City. He is even offered a teaching gig at Columbia. His art appears to consist of portraits and landscapes. Where in New York is the gallery showing this kind of stuff and who is buying? Russo credits one of his editors with saving this book but I have my doubts.