Spevak: Sometimes a novelist can also be a friend

By John SpevakFebruary 15, 2013 

Readers of this column with a particularly good memory may recall a column I wrote a while back about John Updike.

Updike was my favorite novelist. He was someone, like Joseph Heller, whose books gave me both delight and insight. I enjoyed the characters, narratives, and experiences he would present.

But Updike died three years ago. When I learned of his death, I felt I had lost a friend, just as I had felt when Heller died 10 years before.

In the past three years I hadn't found another novelist with whom I could relate as closely as I did with Updike and Heller. Until now. His name is Richard Russo.

Unlike some readers who like science fiction or escapist thrillers, I enjoy novels with characters and stories similar to my own life experiences.

Updike did this for me in creating characters like Rabbit Angstrom, a man trying to deal with -- as I was when reading his story -- the responsibilities and challenges of marriage, a family, and making a living in today's world.

Heller did this in characters like Yossarian, who tried to make sense out of his bizarre life in the military. (I first read Heller when I was an enlisted man in the Air Force.)

I started to appreciate Richard Russo, who is three years younger than I am, several years ago when I read his novel "Straight Man," about an English teacher in a small college.

But it wasn't until I recently read a second Russo novel, "Bridge of Sighs," that I realized the affinity I have with this novelist. The book's back cover first caught my attention, describing the novel's main character as a man in his 60s preparing for a trip to Italy, when he would visit Rome, Florence, and Venice.

"That's me," I said to myself. The back cover also noted the character is from a small town, where he's lived contentedly for many years.

I bought and started to read the book. I noted the main character's early life included details I remember as a kid, like hearing bottles rattle during a milkman's home delivery and walking a block to the corner store where I could buy a quarter-pound of freshly sliced bologna or a pint of ice cream.

I could also recognize many of the characters in "Bridge of Sighs," including an eccentric high school English teacher; boys and men who could be cool, cruel, or goofy; and girls and women who frequently lose patience with male eccentricities.

Much of "Bridge of Sighs" is told from the perspective of man looking back on his life, an idealist with a positive perspective, who is now writing an informal autobiography, one small story at a time.

His wife, on the other hand, is a pragmatist, or as she might say, a "realist." She frequently encourages her husband to take a more critical view of life -- of himself, his friends, and his town. She had been warned, "Never trust a man who lives in his head."

She also thinks that small towns are confining; she would like to live in other places. It was her idea, for example, to visit Italy.

A third significant character is a mutual friend who made a flamboyant move from his small town to an art studio in Venice.

Late into the book I realized that the main character and his wife, although they had been planning a trip to Italy for many months, do not go to Italy after all.

With probably any other novel, I would have been disappointed, even irritated, that the fictional experience which enticed me to buy the book -- Americans getting their first taste of Rome, Florence, and Venice -- never happens.

And yet I still liked the book, very much. It provided psychological insights into the experiences of a man and a woman in their 60s reflecting on life's simultaneous satisfactions and disappointments, dysfunctions and interconnections, bitter times and sweet moments.

Richard Russo might not be a writer who appeals to you, dear reader. But I hope you find, or have found, a novelist still writing whom you can consider, as I do Russo, a virtual friend and confidant.

Comments on the writings of John Spevak, an Enterprise columnist for 29 years, are encouraged, and can be sent via email to john.spevak@gmail.com.

Comments on the writings of John Spevak, an Enterprise columnist for 29 years, are encouraged, and can be sent via email to john.spevak@gmail.com.

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