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Richard Russo's Small-Town America

Oct 1, 2007 (Morning Edition)

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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."

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