Russo draws again from his blue-collar roots

Posted: Friday, October 05, 2007

CAMDEN, Maine - Richard Russo's blue-collar background is embedded in his DNA, so it's no surprise that his first novel since the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Empire Falls" draws again from his fond but unvarnished memories of life in a dying factory town.

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The much-anticipated "Bridge of Sighs," out this week, is set in Thomaston, N.Y., a tannery town that could be a dead ringer for Gloversville, N.Y., the one-time glove-making capital of the world where the author spent his first 17 years.

Russo, who characterizes himself as a comic writer, calls it his darkest novel, one that took him "into some pretty dark places" as it touched upon issues of class, race, violence and ignorance. Never, he says, has writing a book left him so exhausted and on the edge of despair.

In depicting an Empire Falls overshadowed by its vacant shirt factory and textile mill or a struggling tannery whose polluted waters leave Thomaston with a legacy of cancer deaths, Russo's sense of place and affection for the local citizens ring loud and clear.

"I think of these novels of mine as snapshots of the America that means the most to me and the one that I see disappearing before my eyes. These places, these people, these jobs, these rhythms of life, they've all just been outsourced," he says.

"I feel like I'm bringing it up from some very deep subconscious well," says Russo, who feels no need to research such places.

Russo's father worked as a part-time leather cutter and supplemented his income by tending bar and working construction; Russo would join his father on road crews during summer vacations from college.

He sees himself as a historian of sorts, one who draws on personal memories without getting mired in nostalgia. His latest small-town portrait is also more overtly political, especially in its depiction of economic decline and racial prejudice.

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