ThomastonThis post is dangerously close to turf already claimed by Bill Kaufman and Jason Peters. But the appeal of Richard Russo is so strong that if FPR readers do not know about the contemporary novelist who sets many of his novels in small towns and whose characters revel in their setting, they should.

His latest novel (Peters territory), Bridge of Sighs, is set in Thomaston, New York (Kaufman territory). Google maps indicates that Thomaston, New York is actually on Long Island, a couple of inlets away from LaGuardia airport. (Many apologies to localist agrarians for searching via machine and locating by reference to a site of machinery.)  Because Russo has set previous novels in Maine, now lives in Camden, Maine, and taught for several years at Colby College, he may have actually had Thomaston, Maine in mind for this fictional town in upstate New York (which was the setting for Nobody’s Fool – a not too shabby movie starring the late, great, Paul Newman – unfortunately the same cannot be said for the HBO production of Empire Falls, which is unusual given the quality of many of that cable company’s productions, such as The Wire).

This is the second paragraph of Bridge of Sighs:

Perhaps what’s most remarkable about my life is that I’ve lived all of it in the same small town in upstate New York, a thing unheard of in this day and age. My wife’s parents moved here when she was a little girl, so she has few memories before Thomaston, and her situation isn’t much different from my own. Some people, upon learning how we’ve lived our lives, are unable to conceal their chagrin on our behalf, that our lives should be so limited, as if experience so geographically circumscribed could be neither rich nor satisfying. When I assure them that it has been both, their smiles suggest we’ve been blessed with self-deception byway of compensation for all we’ve missed. I remind such people that until fairly recently the vast majority of humans have been circumscribed in precisely this manner and that lives can also be constrained by a great many other things: want, illness, ignorance, loneliness, and lack of faith, to name just a few. But it’s probably true my wife would have traveled more if she’d married someone else, and my unwillingness to become the vagabond is just one of the ways I’ve been, as I said, an unexciting if loyal and unwavering companion. She’s heard all of my arguments, philosophical and other, for staying put; in her mind they all amount to little more than my natural inclination, inertia rationalized. She may be right.

That such localist proclivities are the basis for a national best-selling novel may indicate that localism is not as dead as Fro Po Conservatives are tempted to think. (Yes, I’m back on my meds.)

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D. G. Hart is a visiting professor of history at Hillsdale College. After completing his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University, he taught at Wheaton College and Westminster Seminary before directing academic programs at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. He is the author of several books, including A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State (Ivan R. Dee); The University Gets Religion: Religious Studies and American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press); and From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelical Protestants and American Conservatism (Eerdmans).

9 COMMENTS

  1. That clinches it: I’ll go get Bridge of Sighs. Russo’s latest novel, actually, is THAT OLD CAPE MAGIC, which I finished a couple of weeks ago. It was my first foray into his work, which I’d been encouraged to read for years by friends. I don’t know that it was profound, but it was actually enjoyable to read, which is more than I can say for most modern fiction. And it confirms Russo’s front porch sympathies, to be sure. I wonder if he’d be surprised to hear that.

  2. Don’t anybody spoil That Old Cape Magic for me. I can’t get to it until the Christmas holidays.

    Darryl, you’re right to say that Russo deserves a rocking chair on The Porch. Not an honorary rocking chair; a real one. Straight Man is the funniest campus novel since Lucky Jim, and Empire Falls belongs on the august list of damn fine Catholic novels. Yup. Russo’s the real deal.

  3. I’ve not read Russo but he sounds good — thanks for the tip.

    What do you guys think of Jon Hassler as a “small town” writer? I’ve often been tempted to give him a go, but never have done, as I don’t know anyone who’s read him.

  4. As Susan McWilliams reminded me once, integral to the greatness of my favorite Alexis de Tocqueville was the fact that he was traveller. His restless soul was not interminably so, he was rooted in La France(and Normandy), but his greatness only came due to his wanderlust.

    And then there’s what my second-favorite, Blaise Pascal, said, that no-one would ever travel if they could not talk about it afterwards. Pascal had a thing or two to say about human vanity and our desire for diversion.

  5. NOBODY’S FOOL was shot largely in my hometown of Fishkill, NY, where Washington’s sword and the first copies of the NY Constitution were made, and in the neighboring town of Beacon, where every Sunday one can find Pete Seeger chatting up his neighbors at the farmers market. I remember watching as a 9 year old as they filmed Paul Newman decking the police officer played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. In the background of that scene is our local library and a few of my old classmates’ homes. None of us kids were allowed to see the film when it was released (thank you, Melanie Griffith). Finally liberated from my parents adherence to MPAA ratings, I watched the film and, hometown bias aside, I think it is one this crowd would thoroughly enjoy.

  6. Rob G:

    Hassler has never disappointed me. Like Russo, he has the right kind of affection for his characters and their places. Maybe start with Staggerford or Rookery Blues.

  7. Hassler’s novels are very much a Midwestern take on many of Russo’s themes. North of Hope and Grand Opening are, in my opinion, his finest novels. There are numerous parallels between Bridge of Sighs and Grand Opening.

  8. Russo’s Straight Man is one of the better academic novels ever written, and certainly one of the funniest. Nobody’s Fool is a dark and nihiistic book that was made into a truly fine movie by Newman, et. al. This is one of those cases, rare indeed, where the movie is much better than the novel. Much better. Don’t credit Russo.

  9. I loved all of Russo’s earlier books, read each of them over and over… so I bought this one immediately when it was announced. Started reading, couldn’t get past the second page, threw it away. I’m not sure exactly what’s wrong, but he’s lost his soul.

    This fate seems to overtake the great “place-based” authors sooner or later. Maybe they tire of fighting the venomous accusations of racism and sexism that always rain on anyone who doesn’t fill a book with verbatim recitations of Leninist orthodoxy. I don’t know why, but most of them fold into academic sameness after several wonderful books.

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