pulp (2008-04)

Of Bridges and Black Holes

PULP

Richard Russoâ’s new novel is a bit too long, but Charles Burnsâ’ graphic novel is just right

Bridge of Sighs (Knopf) by Richard Russo Set in the fictional small town of Thomaston, N.Y., outside of Albany, Richard Russoâ’s new novel Bridge of Sighs tells the story of Lou â“Lucyâ” Lynch, his parents, his girlfriend/wife, and his boyhood best friend. Their stories are not necessarily remarkable, but they are powerful. Indeed, Russoâ’s great skill, as best seen in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls, is telling stories about small-town life and the universal complexities that inevitably exist in them.

Weâ’ve all seen or experienced at least some of the events in Bridge of Sighs: schoolyard bullies, racism, courtship, marriage, divorce, financial peril, misunderstandings, and deathâ"by accident, suicide, and cancer. That pretty much covers all of us.

And thatâ’s what makes Bridge of Sighs so compelling. Lucy is one of us. He longs for when life was simple. He loves the past, but is scared of the future. Heâ’s not stupid, but he has no desire to leave his home town. Since he was a boy, his only desire was to run the familyâ’s corner market. Heâ’s comfortable, and that can make us uncomfortable. We canâ’t help but ask ourselves if weâ’re like him.

Bobby, his boyhood friend, is decidedly not like Lucy. While Lucy had a stable, so-called normal family, Bobbyâ’s was a mess, and he couldnâ’t wait to escape. He became a famous painter and eventually settled in Venice (hence the title of the book). He never understood or cared when Lucy would send him remember-when letters, or news clippings, or obituaries. For Bobby, the past was the past; for Lucy it was the best part of his life.

Like many books that are more than 500 pages, Bridge of Sighs could benefit from some editing. The last 50 pages seem forced, and the ending feels contrived. Russoâ’s attempt to write ethnic dialect is strained. But his talent as a storyteller wins out. He nicely mixes chapters in the novel, using Lucy as a first-person narrator as well as having an omniscient narrator. Itâ’s an effective approach, as it gets us inside Lucyâ’s head (and he is, eventually, unfailingly honest) and we also see whatâ’s happening beyond Lucyâ’s line of sight. Despite its shortcomings, Bridge of Sighs is worth readingâ"we may learn something about ourselves in its pages. â" Shawn Oâ’Hare

Black Hole (Pantheon) by Charles Burns

Charles Burns is obsessed with slits. In Black Hole, his multi-award-winning graphic novel now in paperback, they appear on page after meticulously drawn page, from the split bellies of biology-class frogs to the neck of a teenage boy. You might expect them to symbolize the ultimate horror: seeing whatâ’s really beneath someoneâ’s skin. But these slits sometimes reveal something else entirely, as in the case of the unfortunate young man: teeth.

Itâ’s that kind of queasy imagery that made Burnsâ’ reputation as an alternative-comics star, beginning with his strips for RAW magazine in the â’80s. His crisp, precise line work echoes the realistic style of â’50s E.C. Comics artists from titles like Tales from the Crypt; but the freak-show denizens in his stories are the heroes rather than the monsters. Burns challenges himself as much as the reader: Can he make you sympathize with el Borbah, the muscle-bound wrestler/detective with a much-too-small head? Or with Dog Boy, whose All-American features only sometimes disguise the fact that he has the transplanted heart of a dog? And then thereâ’s Big Babyâ

Black Hole is Burnsâ’ finest work, and it comes as no surprise: It was first published in a 12-volume comic book from Kitchen Sink and Fantagraphics that took Burns 10 years to complete. While every bit as surreal and unnerving as his other comics, Black Hole also sustains an emotional thread that makes its horrors that much more horrible. Set in early 1970s Seattle (which is exactly where and when Burns grew up), it delves into the emotional and biological pains of adolescence, following a group of bored teenagers experimenting with drugs, alcohol, and sex. But some of them have become infected with what they matter-of-factly call â“the bug,â” a sexually transmitted disease that deforms their bodies in different ways: grotesque faces, decaying flesh, a second mouth in the neck that speaks its own thoughts. Those carrying the plague drop away from society, living in nearby woods rather than suffer the savage cruelty of their former friends.

Burns captures the timeless fears of high-school students in graphic detail: bodies changing in ways that are beyond control, social strictures that canâ’t be challenged, and banishment for anyone who doesnâ’t fit in. Although some of Burnsâ’ other comics suffer from a sense of remote coolness, in Black Hole he creates characters that are easily recognizable and relatable. And then he plunges them into very literal horrors of impending adulthood. His artwork is often astonishing, from the brooding noir feel of the so-called normal world of its characters to the eerie imagery of their worst nightmares and drug trips. His framing and composition give the story a forward motion that dares you to pause to admire the drawings. Black Hole is truly a landmark in the still-not-quite-accepted art form of graphic novels. â" Coury Turczyn

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