My choices in reading tend towards nonfiction. Given a choice of reading a novel or a nonfiction tome on sociology, history, urban planning, et al, I’m going to choose the latter nine out of 10 times. If I want something a bit lighter, I’ll opt for essays, or even a biography.
Writers that manage to do both, especially that small group that do both well, garner my attention. Some of those writers I’ve written about here and in some other blogs of mine; David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Barbara Kingsolver are three that quickly come to mind. I’ll add a fourth to that list in Richard Russo, now that he’s released a memoir.
Russo is an interesting writer for me on a number of levels. While his first book, Mohawk, was published in 1986, when I was a young man in my 20s, unaware that my own writing trajectory would criss-cross Russo’s, I only “discovered” his books after he’d been at his craft for awhile. The book of discovery for me was Empire Falls, set in a mythical post-industrial, decaying mill town. While Russo grew up in upstate New York, he’d move to Maine in the late 1990s after landing a gig teaching writing at Colby College in Waterville. Russo couldn’t have moved to a better locale, as Waterville, with the death of Hathaway Shirts, served as a parallel backdrop, along with Gloversville, for his novel. What was even more realistic was Skowhegan, just 20 miles up the road. That dying mill town, along with some other Maine locales became the real-world set for the Pulitzer-winning novel when it was made into a two part mini-series that aired on HBO in 2005.
Russo suggested to his script people that the miniseries would have added believability if shot in Maine. He recommended Skowhegan, along with Winslow, Waterville, and Kennebunkport as locations for filming. Fortunately, they took his advice and Hollywood came to Maine. Actors and actresses like Ed Harris, Helen Hunt, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dennis Farina, Joanne Woodward, and Paul Newman (in what became his last live action role) flew into Portland and then got shuttled up the interstate where they trod the tired streets of Skowhegan
After reading Empire Falls, I sought out Mohawk, Russo’s first novel, interested in his development as a writer, especially after seeing the Hollywood adaptation what would had become his breakout novel. Returning to his first book, I enjoyed its grittiness, and I got a sense about places like Gloversville that Russo would later flesh out more fully in his memoir, Elsewhere.
Upstate New York, and in particular, towns that became a facsimile of the place where he grew up, are the defining locales in Russo’s fictional America. While a novelist, he casts his lot with those places that have been experiencing a six-decade decline from heydays tied to a country that once made its own shirts, gloves, shoes, and other accoutrements.
If you live in rural America, or at least that part of the country far removed from urban hubs like Boston, New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, all that’s often left for the inhabitants of economically-ravaged places like Gloversville (his hometown), Skowhegan (Empire Falls), Waterville, and my own place of birth, Lisbon Falls, is a hearkening back to something that once was but has long ago disappeared.
In the course of the past year, I missed that Russo had written a memoir. I knew about his previous book, Interventions, which he collaborated with his daughter on. The “criss-cross” I mentioned earlier was that Russo and I shared book publicists. I don’t know how I had the good fortune, as a semi-obscure regional writer/publisher, to have the same publicist as Russo, but it was a nice footnote for me.
Memoirs are exceptionally popular. It seems like everyone has one these days. Popular or not, they can be difficult to pull off, especially when the memoir treads difficult personal history involving family; in Russo’s case, his mother.
His hometown, Gloversville, New York experienced a prosperous 50 to 60 years between 1890 and 1950. Gloversville and other communities like it in Fulton County, were home to tanneries and glove-making operations. In the early years of the 20th century, glove-making, as well as other leather products—upholstery, handbags, leather coats, shoes—were still domestically produced. After WWI,however, the process began being mechanized and by WWII, it was all but over for men like Russo’s grandfather, who had been a craftsman, but mass-production made his skill virtually obsolete over the course of his working life. Eventually, all former handmade goods manufactured in America would end up being made somewhere else.
Russo was raised in a two-family household. His mother, a single-mother before it became more acceptable to be one, lived upstairs with young Ricky, with her parents occupying the two-bedroom , single bath unit below. Around the corner, Russo’s aunt and uncle lived, so he grew up around extended family and cousins.
While the early pages of the book frame Russo’s mother as a woman working hard to juggle the dual responsibilities of mother and father, while holding down a full-time job in nearby Schenectady with General Electric, you begin to get a hint that something was amiss.
Russo’s father, a World War II veteran, returned from Europe, a recipient of the Bronze Star, only to become a gambler and it wasn’t long before he was completely out of young Russo’s life. He’d resurface later on, when Richard was in college, and he’d learn why his father had abandoned the family. “You do know your mother’s nuts, right?” he’d tell him when the two of them were coming home after drinking, and working construction together while he was home one summer in college. This made him angry, but was a revelation.
His mom, Jean, took tremendous pride in being able make it as a single woman with a young son. Early in the book, we learn that she made more money than most of the men in Gloversville who were working in the tanning factories in town, and the women doing piecework at home. Working as a professional at GE paid well, but still less than her male co-workers. Also, being a single parent was an ongoing financial challenge and at the end of every month, after all the bills were paid, their financial shoestring was often frayed, and occasionally snapped.
Her relationship with her parents was challenging at best. Russo’s mother was fiercely independent and anytime her parents offered any advice on raising young Ricky, they were reminded in no uncertain terms that they could live anywhere else; the tacit understanding was that if her parents didn’t mind their own business, then she’d move elsewhere.
His mother didn’t drive. It wasn’t unusual at the time for women not to drive. And Gloversville in the 1950s, was a very walkable place. Plus, his mother possessed a “special skill” that became one of the more humorous elements of the first part of the book; the ability to get other people take Ricky and Jean wherever they wanted to go.
At one point, Jean decided they were going to Martha’s Vineyard to vacation. The resort where they booked their stay was supposed to have everything they needed; except that the beach was on a sound and waves were nonexistent, a crushing blow to young Russo.
Jean managed to finagle a ride with another couple travelling across the island to a beach with larger waves, and they’d end up being the Russo’s personal transportation for the entire week. There were other similar stories. This was laugh out loud funny in parts for me.
Writing about one’s family of origin is fraught with danger. It’s difficult to maintain objectivity, or in the case of memoirs, not to go overboard, fixating on all the “mistakes” that parents inevitably make in getting us to adulthood and beyond. Then, there’s the other error that some writers make, painting their parents as nostalgic caricatures, and glossing over any of their shortcomings.
The second half of Elsewhere was painful to read.While Russo credits Jean with managing to get him out of Gloversville, which was accomplished by her encouraging him in high school to consider schools, “out west,” she also manages to hitch a ride with him westward. The reader is left to wonder and Russo infers that this was all part of a larger plan, or scheme, by his mother. Both end up in Phoenix; Richard at the University of Arizona, and Jean without a job and without a car, in a city characterized by urban sprawl.
The road trip west is funny. Russo had bought a 1967 Ford Galaxie his senior year in high school, with the encouragement of his mother. She saw the Galaxie, dubbed “the Gray Death” by his friends, as their ticket out of a dead-end place.
The hulking car, with its small V-6, lacked power, especially towing a U-Haul trailer. They weather (and survive) many near misses on their trek west. Russo, as a teenage driver, lacking sufficient skill to navigate the car, towing a trailer, avoids several potentially devastating mishaps.
Russo recounts that “I must’ve nearly caused a half-dozen accidents, and the drivers I imperiled…retaliated by laying on their horns before swerving in front of me to see how I liked it…” His mother incredulously asking, “What’s wrong with all these people. Why’s everybody so mad at us?”
They manage to make it to Phoenix without a wreck, and the humor shifts. The end of the journey intimates at uncertainty, especially for Jean.
The job at GE that she told Richard she had, would later be revealed that it wasn’t a sure-thing. The colleague she had met and dated in Schenectady that had probably told her to come west anytime she wanted, was no longer working in Phoenix. The operation was small and not anything like the large plant in New York.
Not having a driver’s license, and with public transportation minimal at best, Jean is like a fish out of water. The oppressive heat of the Phoenix summer makes walking all but impossible, not to mention the car-choked roadways of a city that would become the norm for the rest of the Sunbelt build-out of the 1960s and early 1970s.
Readers also see a different side of what had appeared to be a confident professional woman, now seemingly coming apart, as her anxieties and idiosyncrasies now keeping her from real growth and change. She’s afraid of so many things, and obsessed about others. Russo, still not aware that his mother suffers from mental illness (OCD) and always has, thinks it’s related to her “fear of poverty.”
Jean does meet a man in Phoenix, marries him and moves to California. When the marriage fails, finances become difficult and she has an attack of “nerves,” she decides that she needs to swallow her pride and return to Gloversville.
This begins a pattern that characterized the second half of her life. Moving back to Gloversville, and then calling Richard up on the phone to complain that she couldn’t “take it” any longer. This would force Russo to bring his mother to live where he happened to be at the time; first Carbondale, when he was teaching at Southern Illinois University, and later, to Maine, when he landed the job at Colby. Each move became increasingly difficult, as his mother’s condition become more acute and challenging for him.
This engendered added stress in his life, caused difficulties between Russo and his wife, and illustrated the challenge of being an adult and still having to shoulder the responsibilities of caring for an adult parent.
Russo intimates early on that his mother had a “condition.” This condition was something the whole family seemed aware of, but no one talked about. Russo mentions how the word “nerves” was uttered. As a young boy, when his mother had a case of the “nerves,” it would frighten him. He wondered if this would one day plague him. He also learned that if someone became too “nervous,” then they might have a “breakdown.”
Jean would periodically have what I’d characterize as a “meltdown,” from which she’d then have to give herself what she called a “talking to,” and then things would seem to be alright for awhile. Russo also mentions that while he was still a pre-teen, his mother had visited the family physician after one particular low point, confessing that the stress of being a single parent and working full-time was overwhelming her. He prescribed phenobarbital, and later, it would be Valium for her “nerves.”
Various incidents triggered flare-ups; a break-up with a man she was dating, an argument with her parents, being blindsided by an unexpected expense, etc.
Russo’s memoir touches on many issues that I think adult children struggle with. The relationships we have with our parents, particularly relationships that are difficult, continue to haunt us throughout our adult lives.
For Russo, it was the overwhelming burden and probably guilt that he felt and the responsibility that he felt for his mother’s happiness. On one level, he obviously recognized that he was incapable of ensuring anyone else’s happiness, but it didn’t stop him from ordering his life, and enabling behavior in his mother.
In an interview I read with Russo, he even admits that if forced to choose between his mother and his wife, he would have chosen his mother. This had to have been particularly difficult for his wife, Barbara. He admits in the same interview that fortunately for him, he didn’t have to make that choice.
As a writer, Russo’s memoir, and even his novels, allow him to work through life’s many complexities and the mysteries of his existence. I don’t think this is strange, as many writers admit such.
I’m sure that Russo published the book with some trepidation. There are certainly elements of the book that are unflattering to his mother. He mentions in another interview allowing his daughters, Kate and Emily, to read the book, along with other family members, to make sure he wasn’t being overly harsh towards Jean.
In the end, I’m glad he published the book. Honest writing, in my way of seeing a writer’s role, is the best kind of writing. Otherwise, all we ever have is mere fiction.