A dying town symbolizes arcs separately traced by people who abandon it and others who stubbornly stay home, believing change must be for the best, in Russo’s (The Whore’s Child: and Other Stories, 2005, etc.) crowded sixth novel.
Its setting (fictional Thomaston in upstate New York) resembles that of both his early books set thereabouts (Mohawk, The Risk Pool) and his New England–based Pulitzer-winner Empire Falls. Thomaston is the site of the now-defunct tannery that had provided jobs and is now suspected of causing cancer. It’s the hometown of Lou C. Lynch (tormented, inevitably, by the lasting nickname “Lucy”) and his wife Sarah, now 60-ish and hoping to pass on their family’s “empire” of convenience stores to the next generation. A narrative composed by Lou (about his hometown and himself) is juxtaposed with memories of his childhood and youth, and with a parallel narrative set in Venice, where the Lynches’ childhood friend Bobby Marconi now lives as a gifted, renegade artist—and a cancer victim. Nobody now writing rivals Russo at untangling the knots of family connection, love and sexuality, ambition and compromise, fidelity and betrayal that link and afflict a formidable gallery of vividly observed, generously portrayed characters. Prominent among them: Lou’s eternal-optimist father and namesake; his stoical mother Tessa; the lower-class boys who taunt and threaten him and the girls he turned to (and sometimes loved); and the luckless Marconis, victimized by a viciously abusive father. Every page bristles with life. True, many of the details and motifs (e.g., an embattled family business; prosperity transformed by inevitable change; a black-sheep sibling) closely echo the matter of Empire Falls. Nevertheless, this is a wise, uplifting book: a big-hearted, often comic, yet sturdily realistic testament to the resiliency of ordinary people who surprise us, and themselves, by coping, rebuilding and moving on.
Rich, confounding and absorbing—utterly irresistible.