Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.
Richard Russo has drawn on his experiences growing up in Gloversville, N.Y., to become what The Washington Post calls "the patron saint of small-town fiction." Winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for his novel Empire Falls, Russo writes about people who curb their dreams, feeling stuck in their ailing hometowns in New England. And he writes about people who escape those towns, but who can't escape a sense of loss.
In his new novel, Bridge of Sighs, Russo is at his most expansive. The story moves from Thomaston, a dying upstate New York tannery town, all the way to Venice, Italy, where the much-married, much-divorced Bobby Marconi has holed up. Marconi, a famous painter, escaped from Thomaston as a teenager. He left behind his friend Lou C. Lynch, a nice guy who stayed put and married his high-school sweetheart. Years later, Lynch begins writing a history of their town, and for research, travels to Venice to reunite with Marconi.
Bridge of Sighs links different families — the sons and fathers, the husbands and wives — and what seems like the entire population of a typically comic Russo town: the salt-of-the-earth types, the blue-collar eccentrics and the seedy characters.
This portrait of what may seem like lives trapped by the past is tempered by Russo's sense — inherited, he says, from F. Scott Fitzgerald — that we Americans have "a right, a privilege, maybe even the responsibility to reinvent ourselves." And then there's Russo's sardonic but big-hearted humor. In Bridge of Sighs, Lynch considers titling his town history, "The Dullest Story Ever Told."
Not so, says the Post. Instead, as in all of his writing, Russo takes the "small" out of small-town fiction.
In this public reading, recorded in October 2007 at Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., Russo also discusses his academic career (he retired a decade ago from Maine's Colby College) and his rewarding collaborations with Hollywood director-screenwriter Robert Benton, including the films Nobody's Fool, Twilight and The Ice Harvest.
Richard Russo's novel, Bridge of Sighs, is a story about unexceptional people in an unexceptional upstate New York town. But the novel, Maureen Corrigan says, is anything but unexceptional; it's pound-for-pound the best new fiction on shelves today. Russo won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Empire Falls, a story about the relationships between people in a small town in Maine.
Author Richard Russo knows small towns well. He writes about them and grew up in one — Gloversville, in upstate New York. The town was named for the local industry, but by the time he lived there, much of the glove manufacturing work was being done in Asia and Europe.
"Gloves would be sent to have a couple of buttons sewed on so that you could sell them as gloves made in Gloversville," Russo says.
For Russo, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Empire Falls, seeing the town change in such a big way influenced the way he saw the world and how he writes. In his latest book, Bridge of Sighs, what happens in a small town changes the lives of two men in very different ways.
"Bridge of Sighs is a book about somebody who stays and somebody who leaves," Russo tells Steve Inskeep.
Russo sees that dilemma reflected in his own life.
"I've always had the feeling that part of me left. I mean, the Richard Russo who grew up and became novelist is one person. But I've always had the distinct feeling that there was a ghost version of myself still living back in that place that's still so real in my imagination and that I've been telling fibs about all this time."
While attending the University of Arizona — a place he chose for its distance from home — Russo would return in the summers to work in road construction with his father.
"At the beginning of the summer I would think, 'God, I don't know if I can get into those rhythms of life again," Russo says. "But by the end of August, I would be so thoroughly subsumed into that other life — a very hard life that my father lived. But then at the end of the day, sitting at a bar and watching those long-neck bottles of beer line up sweating in front of you, and I would think to myself, 'Do I really want to go back to the university?'
"And as a result of doing that every summer, I think I bifurcated in some way. I've always thought that there was some other version of me sitting on a bar stool."
Russo says jobs aren't the only thing to have vanished from small-town America.
"The labor-oriented jobs in towns like these, the mill jobs, have all disappeared. But I think what's disappeared more and what's more harmful to America is the loss of the pride that came with those jobs."
Russo and his father worked one summer on the off-ramp exit in Albany. "When we would drive by that ... he would say, 'We built that.'"
"And I think that small towns, certainly ... my fictional small towns, have become places where people are hanging on to hope and hanging onto pride, and hanging on by a thread that seems to me now at least much more slender than it was when my father's generation came home at the end of the Second World War."