Though down-at-the-heels and probably dying, the Northeastern towns that Richard Russo portrays in his funny, populous novels are places you always return to with pleasure, as his droll accounts of everyday life tend to overshadow the current of melancholy that runs through his work. In his engrossing new novel, Bridge of Sighs, Russo confronts head-on the question implicit in his fiction: Is the American story fundamentally sunny? Or is it dark and twisted?
Cheerleader for the Pollyannas is Lou C. ”Lucy” Lynch. A native of fictional Thomaston, N.Y. — where cancer rates spiked after a tannery polluted the groundwater — Lucy married his high school sweetheart, spent 40 years running a grocery, and, at 60, declares himself well pleased with his ”good simple” life. But how much misery has Lucy willfully overlooked? By contrast, Lucy’s boyhood friend Bobby Marconi never flinched from ugliness, using anger to fuel his escape from Thomaston. Now a famous artist, Bobby is restive and alone. Which man got things right?
Russo doesn’t handle his thematic material with subtlety. Everyone in the sizable cast, both cynics and sentimentalists, eventually lines up on one side of his binary equation. But Russo writes about these characters — their fistfights, bar nights, secret kisses, self-delusions — with such warmth that, whether it turns out to be a hellhole or heaven on earth, you’re grateful to be back on his turf. B+