Beginning with his novels Mohawk (1986) and The Risk Pool (1988), Richard Russo has ever been interested in chronicling the lives of quiet desperation and small triumphs that make up small blue-collar towns in upper New York state; Bridge of Sighs follows in the footsteps of such novels as Nobody’s Fool (1993) and Empire Falls (2001) in chronicling the complex lives of working-class characters and their dreams and ambitions. The protagonist for much of the novel, Lou C. “Lucy” Lynch, is the owner of a few convenience stores and a small apartment building in the small town of Thomaston, where his father had once been a milkman and then became the owner of a small grocery store, Ikey Lubin’s, which Lou has inherited. The majority of the novel is narrated by Lou; in his sixtieth year, he has begun a memoir about his youth, even as he and his wife Sarah prepare to visit their school friend Bobby Marconi, now the renowned painter Robert Noonan, in his home city of Venice. Both Bobby and Sarah serve as centers of other sections of the novel; although Lou is at the center of the book, Bridge of Sighs tells the story of all three of them.
Initially the novel alternates between long sections about Lou’s childhood with Bobby and shorter sections about the adult Robert Noonan’s painting career in Venice; later the novel focuses on the trio’s senior year in high school. In Lou’s narrative, readers meet his father, who is also named Lou (and called alternately either Lou-Lou or Big Lou), a convivial, optimistic, genuinely kind man, incapable of sensing the dark side of humanity. Lou’s mother, on the other hand, is cynical, shrewd, and intelligent, and the driving ambition in their lives: “To her,” Lou writes, “a sunny day was a rarity. Tomorrow it would rain, and the only question was how hard.”
Nicknamed Lucy as a boy, Lou is affable like his father, if smarter and quieter, and is often the target of bullies. His friendship with Bobby Marconi largely occurs because the two are neighbors, but there is another side to it: Bobby is unafraid of bullies and fully willing to fight. In a sense, he serves the passive Lou as a courageous and angry extension of Lou’s secret self. Lou’s fascination with Bobby at times approaches adoration, perhaps in part because at some level young Lou wishes to be Bobby. Bobby, on the other hand, is the oldest son of a troubled family; his continually pregnant mother tries again and again to leave Bobby’s dark, violent father, who again and again returns her to their home, throwing away her suitcase.
Lou’s torment at the hands of bullies reaches its peak in his preadolescence when they take him to an old shed by a river, close him up in a trunk, and pretend that they are going to saw the trunk in half. Lou suffers a kind of spell; he loses control of where and when he is, only emerging from his stupor many hours later at the sounds of a man and woman having a liaison in the shed. He walks back home in the dark to find his father waiting for him at 2 a.m. on the small footbridge that traverses the river and to discover that half the police in the municipality were looking for him. The title Bridge of Sighs refers not only to the famous bridge over the Rio di Palazzo in Venice but also this small bridge where Lou must confront his tormentors daily and where his father stands vigil for him. In a sense, the bridge, and Lou’s experience in the trunk, signify the loss of his childhood; he is called to leave behind innocence and perhaps even goodness in order to cross the bridge into adulthood with its corruptions.
The “spells,” as they are called in the novel, will haunt Lou for the rest of his life. They will in some ways cause people to underrate Lou throughout much of his youth. Furthermore, Lou and Bobby have crossed other bridges: Bobby moves to a different part of town, and after getting in a fight that soon becomes legendary, is sent off to a military academy by his father. Lou is left alone to sort out his feelings about hard-luck cases like Karen Cirillo, whose mother rents the apartment above their store. Karen’s boyfriend is Bobby’s enemy Jerzey Quinn, and Lou is bewildered at the attention she shows him. His eventual realization that she is simply using him for cigarettes filched from his parents’ store serves as another educational experience for...