Decades ago, in the small Maine town where I'm from, an African-American family bought a house. This was before I was born, so I can only imagine the small and large racist threats, both overt and subtle, that they must've suffered through in the few months they lived there. It was only a few months because one night their house burned to the ground. The fire was deemed an accident by local authorities, and the family moved far away. This must've happened all over America in the 1960s. It's part of the lasting cruelty of Yankee small-town life, though, that when I was in high school, lifelong residents of my hometown still gave directions referring to the street that brave family briefly lived on as "Nigger City Road."
Richard Russo's 2001 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Empire Falls was a decidedly untrendy love letter to small-town life. It was also one of the best books to come out that year, and the fact that it was so well-received seemed to spit in the face of urban-skewing conventional literary wisdom. It's a classic heroic journey, about a man named Miles Roby who's bound by indecisiveness. Roby wants to flee Empire Falls, the town he grew up in, and although he eventually does escape the simple and petty forces that keep him from reaching his potential, Russo also uncovers the history of the weird Dickensian knots that tie the townies together, and the reader gets a sense that, at heart, towns are full of people who genuinely care about each other.
Residents of small-town Maine got a real kick out of Empire Falls. They seemed to find it ennobling, a flattering mirror in which to justify their lives. They were no doubt waiting for Russo's follow-up novel, hoping that it would be more of the same. There are similarities between Falls and Russo's new novel, Bridge of Sighs: They're both very long, they're both set in small towns, they both have large casts of eccentric characters who are connected in surprising ways. But I think that rural Mainers are going to be disappointed with Sighs. Actually, I think they're going to hate it.
Sighs is, indeed, a difficult book to love. Set in Thomaston, a fictional town in upstate New York, its main character and primary narrator is a man named Louis Charles "Lucy" Lynch. Lynch is painfully, fearfully provincial. He hates leaving Thomaston, so much so that he's convinced his wife to abandon a promising art career to stay and live in a town that's boring her to death.
What's interesting is that Empire Falls had exactly zero major African-American characters in it, but in Bridge of Sighs all the townschildren gather to watch a white kid beat up an African-American boy because he dared to sit next to a white girl at the movies. Racism is everywhere in Thomaston, and the coincidental, Dickensian connections that bind families together are less a demarcation of unity than a group of criminals holding each others' evidence for ransom. All the secrets are toxic, and they're as public as a sunrise.
This doesn't mean that Sighs is a bad book, but it's a challenging one. Two major storylines deal with adultery, and the book almost reads like a reimagination of The Scarlet Letter, only narrated by Letter's villainous Roger Chillingworth. Small-town America gets its nods, it's true, but rather than giving a sense of tight-knit community, the ending—a bit of glossy happenstance that attempts to resolve both the racism and adultery problems simultaneously—reads like the stomach-churning climax of Tod Browning's film Freaks, where the sideshow monsters are accepting a horrified "normal" bride by chanting "One of us! One of us! Gooble-gobble! Gooble-gobble!"
Sigh's Lynch (notice that name) and Falls' Roby are about as far apart as two protagonists can be—Roby confronts a lifelong tormentor with a John Wayne–style fistfight, but the most confrontational Lynch gets is limply telling someone "You're full of shit" in the middle of the novel. And nothing happens because of it. I can't recall another novelist who's done as much of a spiritual about-face between novels, while covering basically the same subject matter. Sighs isn't a perfect book—the last 75 pages have some atrocious poor-black-accented characters that read like a minstrel show ("Doan be given me that hairy eyeball... You jist got to 'just your thinkin', then you see everythin' clear")—but it's exciting to see an author focus on the same small-town myths that he created in his previous work, and turn them over to show the monsters hiding beneath.
Richard Russo reads on Tues Oct 23 at the Elliott Bay Book Company, 101 S Main St, 7:30 pm, free.