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Richard Russo: Small towns, big books

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Novelist Richard Russo appears in an Aspen Writers' Foundation Winter Word event this week at the Given Institute.(Elena Siebert)
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It’s difficult to gauge Richard Russo’s politics from his novels. In his latest, “Bridge of Sighs,” there is a near celebration of what have come to be called traditional values: the hardworking self-made man who sticks by and with his family through the decades. But Russo’s stories are virtually always set in small towns in steep economic decline, and reveal compassion for those who have been set back by loss of a job, explosion of the family, disease.

In “Bridge of Sighs,” published last September, one of the most sympathetic characters is Gabriel Mock, a drunken, divorced African-American who abandoned his child and whose make-work job ” painting and repainting a town fence ” has been given to him to keep him occupied and out of trouble. Perhaps the biggest display of generosity in the long book full of bighearted emotions is when a white high school girl, Sarah, was encouraged by her father, years earlier, to go on a movie date with the young Gabriel ” an interracial adventure not generally undertaken, nor accepted, in the upstate New York village of Thomaston.

While the political views expressed in his books can be varied and complex, it is simpler to categorize the 58-year-old Russo as a novelist. He is a reactionary, having turned his back long ago on the brand of postmodern fiction practiced by virtually all of his noted peers, in favor of an older form of storytelling. And while he has experimented a bit in his short stories and screenplays, Russo has stayed doggedly on his path in his six novels. As he says, “Who I am when I sit down to write, the person I become, may not be etched in stone, but he is fairly well molded. People know what I do.”

An apt description of what he does is write 20th- and 21st-century versions of 19th-century novels. The books are long, the language simple, the characters abundant, the sidetracks numerous. “Bridge of Sighs” encompasses the points of view of four people (maybe more), from two distinct time periods (although the historical perspective spans more than three generations), on two continents.

“It’s a 19th-century novel, isn’t it?” says the pleasant Russo by phone from Camden, Maine. I recall another novelist, John Irving, making the identical observation of his own work, and Russo grasps the connection instantly.

“We’re steeped in Dickens, the Brontes and Twain,” said Russo. “And for the same reasons; it’s not just that we both like Dickens. He loves a nice leisurely beginning, the broad canvas, bringing minor characters to life, the grotesque ” all these things that people hate about Dickens is the reason we love him. And his digressiveness. He’s willing to go on a tangent for 30 or 40 pages.”

When “Bridge of Sighs” was published, another author, Anita Shreve, remarked about the book’s opening. It is a first-person, autobiographical description from Lou Lynch, a simple, slow, uncomplicated 60-year-old convenience-store owner who has lived his entire life in small, fading Thomaston. It is all character, no action, and deliberate in its directness: “First, the facts. My name is Louis Charles Lynch,” read the first two sentences.

“Where did you find the chutzpah to trust that people would be interested in that voice, without any action?” Russo says Shreve asked him.

“That’s very anti late-20th-century, early 21st-century novelists, who are very preoccupied with a hook,” continued Russo, who appears Thursday, March 6, in an Aspen Writers’ Foundation Winter Words event at the Given Institute. “That’s much closer to ‘David Copperfield’ than anything written today.”

Even as a younger writer, Russo was out of pace with his contemporaries. In the MFA writers’ program at the University of Arizona, Russo was the only student with a Ph.D. Tellingly, his Ph.D. was in 19th-century English literature, and it was this retrograde tendency that most separated him from the pack.

“They were all weaned on postmodern writers: Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan, John Hawkes, Stanley Elkin, all these ‘Lost in the Funhouse’ writers,” said Russo. “And the only writers I admired were the only ones I could go to school on, writers like Richard Yates who were writing throwback, character-oriented, plot-oriented, no-verbal-gymnastics stories. Among my contemporaries, it was Yates who saved me. All those postmodernists were radically against the 19th-century novel. That’s all that made sense to me.”

Geographically speaking, Russo has found places that make more sense to him than the small-town, upstate New York landscape where he was raised. Apart from the summer months during his college years, Russo hasn’t lived in New York state since he was 18. He attended the University of Arizona for most of the late ’60s through the early ’80s, earning his three degrees in the high desert of Tucson. For the last decade, Russo, his wife and their two daughters have lived in Camden, a small town on Maine’s central coast.

But as a writer, the small towns of upstate New York still seem to feel like home base. “Empire Falls,” for which Russo earned the 2002 Pulitzer Prize, and “Bridge of Sighs” are set in the nether lands that share little more than a state capital with New York City. For two novels ” his 1986 debut, “Mohawk,” and 1988’s “The Risk Pool” ” Russo invented a town, Mohawk, very much like his own hometown, Gloversville, about halfway between Albany and Utica.

“It’s still very visceral. What you learn the first 17 years is your hard-wiring; the rest is just software. In a sense, I’ve never left because I’ve always been writing about that place,” said Russo. The writer allows that, over the years, the real place he grew up in and the one he creates in his novels have grown to be more and more a figment of his imagination. “I’ve told so many lies about it that the lies seem more real to me than the truth.”

It is not merely nostalgia at work in the choice of setting. In crumbling, industrial-era places built around mills (“Empire Falls”) or a tannery (“Bridge of Sighs”), Russo finds an ideal location to explore his overriding topic of choice. While the vogue among novelists, he says, has been to focus on race and gender, Russo has stuck to the subject of economic class. It is consistent with his other tendencies; Russo saw class issues already embedded in the society he was born into.

“In Gloversville, class had to do not only with my life, but my parents and grandparents,” he said. “They were all party to the changes in attitude toward class. It was a wonderful crucible to look at that subject.” The smallness of his hometown has been another key ingredient in Russo’s exploration. “The richest people in town, who own the place, and the beggars have to cross each other’s path all the time. The small towns allow me to root in that subject in a way that a larger city like L.A., with gated communities and walled-off neighborhoods, couldn’t.”

In the Thomaston of “Bridge of Sighs,” the various classes are close, but their territories are clearly marked. The struggling white folks live in the West End; those who scratch their way to more comfortable circumstances cross Division Street to the East End. Make it big ” a cushy government job, say ” and you can join the tannery owner in the Borough, where the streets are broad and are the first cleared of snow in winter. The Hill is reserved for the black population.

Louis C. Lynch ” tagged with the unhappy nickname “Lucy” on his first day of school ” was a child of the West End. When his father’s milk-delivery route was stripped away by the modernizing world, his rosy-eyed father gambled on buying a neighborhood grocery store. Thus the Lynch family, devoting themselves to their business, moved with cautious baby steps to the East End. By the time Lucy is a grown man, the Lynch Empire, as his son calls it, is three stores wide, and the Lynches are residents of the Borough. The neighborhood, however, like the whole town, is not what it once was ” the tannery is long gone, leaving behind a polluted river that almost certainly accounts for the horrific cancer rate.

The towns Russo creates may be small. But, unlike many of his characters, the novelist is not confined by their dimensions. “Bridge of Sighs” contains a vast world of not only class differences and tentative upward mobility, but also race and public schools, sex and violence, illness and aging. More than anything, there is the family: sons who despise their fathers, wives who bottle up their regrets and resentments, patriarchs who would sooner tear out their eyeballs than fight with, let alone abandon, their clan.

There is even the world outside Thomaston. Lucy’s troubled childhood friend Bobby not only left Upstate, but succeeded, becoming a famous artist, now known as Noonan, in Venice. The separation between the two old buddies is wide, and Russo uses it to open up a vast set of issues.

“Lucy and Noonan are studies in contrast,” said Russo. “A boy who leaves, one who stays; a boy who fights, and a boy who makes peace. And most profoundly, a boy who loves his father and one who loathes his father.”

Earlier in his career, Russo wrote “Straight Man,” set in a university English department. (The university, to be sure, was set in the Pennsylvania Rust Belt and was in bad need of funding.) Russo believed he need to break out, at least somewhat, from the small-town settings of his first novels. But his agent convinced him that a novel set in a college English department was as insular and boring as you could get, and convinced Russo to focus on “Nobody’s Fool,” set in a dead-end, upstate New York town. (“Straight Man” was eventually published.)

Russo came to learn that small-town settings did not necessarily translate to small-time writers.

“I worried that I’d be pigeonholed as a regional writer, that people would think I had nothing else to say,” he said. “My agent said a very wise thing: ‘Would Dickens feel that way about London? Would Faulkner feel that way about his fictional county [Yoknapatawpha]?’

“Faulkner was our most regional writer, but also out most universal writer. The only way to become a regional writer is to be a second-rate writer, without enough of the universal to write about.”

Russo is content with the literary space he has staked out in economically failing upstate New York towns. That it is familiar, even constrained landscape does not mean that all of life isn’t happening there.

“I want people, when they enter a Richard Russo novel, to know where they are,” he said. “They way you do in a Dickens novel. You’re entering that writer’s world, that writer’s style.”


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