'Bridge of Sighs' stretches from Thomaston, N.Y., to Venice

Richard Russo revisits familiar territory with his tale of a couple stuck in their upstate hometown, and their friend who has fled to Italy.

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In the history of unfortunate monikers, Lou C. Lynch has suffered right up there with "A Boy Named Sue." Unlike the hero of the Johnny Cash song, Lucy, as he's been known since kindergarten, never quite learned how to brawl. He left that to his best friend, Bobby Marconi.

Actually, Lucy left almost everything to Bobby, who fled their hometown of Thomaston, N.Y., their senior year of high school and has never come back. Instead, Bobby changed his name, married multiple times, became a famous artist, and settled in Venice. Lucy never went anywhere. He married his high school sweetheart and slipped into a comfortable life managing the family's local chain of convenience stores. Now, he and Sarah are planning a trip to Italy to reunite with their friend after 40 years, and Lucy finds himself ruminating on the past.

Bridge of Sighs, Richard Russo's first novel since he won the Pulitzer Prize for "Empire Falls," features a number of the author's staples: an ailing factory town in upstate New York, warring fathers and sons, and plenty of memorably seedy types.

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The book's center is Ikey Lubin's, the decrepit convenience store Lucy's father buys. Unfortunately, Lou hasn't the slightest idea what to do with his acquisition. "In the store he was like a man recently jailed without explanation and brutally interrogated on a subject of which he hadn't the slightest knowledge," Lucy writes of his dad's first months as a proprietor. Lucy's clever, tenacious mother is the one who figures out how to make Ikey's work.

Lou is a gentle optimist, baffled when a neighbor refuses to like him. Lucy idolizes him and resents his pragmatic mother. Lucy's wife, Sarah, views Ikey's as a haven as a teenager. Her artist mother abandoned her family, and her dad is an unconventional high school English teacher who, a student comments, seems sane only compared with Captain Ahab.

Sarah, a gifted artist whose parents planned for her to see the world, is tied to Thomaston by her husband and the store she loved as a girl. But Sarah's not the complaining type. "Even as a girl she'd been determined to take responsibility for the hand she'd been dealt, despite not having cut the cards and the dealer a known cheat," Bobby thinks back on his friend.

Bobby, when not at reform school, also seeks out Ikey's, as a place to get free macaroni salad and to see Sarah. Bobby's mission in life is to battle his father, a bully who treated Bobby's ever-pregnant mother with brutal contempt.

Each of the three main characters has their own "Bridge of Sighs" – named after the white limestone bridge in Venice christened by Lord Byron. The bridge connected the Doge's palace with the prison and represented criminals' last look at the city. Lucy's is a trestle footbridge, where a traumatic event from childhood has left him subject to "spells." Sarah's and Bobby's are each a painting.

Sarah is treated to a late-breaking plotline that seems a little contrived (as, frankly, does the idea of Lucy writing a memoir), but overall, the novel shifts sure-footedly between the three main characters, tracing the patterns between generations of three families stuck in a literally poisonous town. (The tannery, before it closed, managed to thoroughly pollute the Coyuga.)

While perhaps not quite the equal of "Empire Falls," "Bridge of Sighs" is anchored by the wry humor and innate decency Russo brings to his characters. Where other writers might see figures of fun – Lucy and his dad with their twin "doofus grins" – Russo sees heroism and melancholy. And nobody does upstate New York – with its financial hardship, despair, and several feet of snow – better than Russo.

"For Sarah's father [a would-be novelist], only the grandest dreams were worth the effort of dreaming," Lucy reflects at one point. "Ikey's wouldn't have counted."

That's probably true of most of us. I've been in many a 7-11 and never once felt the urge to put my feet up and stay – until Russo issued an invitation.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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