Eight days ago, I wrote about Theodore Ross’s new book Am I a Jew?: Lost Tribes, Lapsed Jews, and One Man’s Search for Himself, which I had just begun reading. I didn’t mention another book I was considering reading, Richard Russo’s Elsewhere: A Memoir. I had just read Amy Finnerty’s review of it in the Wall Street Journal and was tempted, but chose Ross.
Russo was one of my favorite author’s a few years back. I loved Straight Man and Empire Falls. I didn’t so much love Bridge of Sighs, which sits just two feet above my head as I type. That broke the spell. I no longer needed to read every Russo book on publication.
Yet this memoir intrigued me. From Finnerty’s review:
Gloversville, the small mill town in upstate New York where novelist Richard Russo grew up, holds a decidedly less eccentric allure than the working class Maine setting of his Pulitzer-winning novel “Empire Falls.” Both towns are struggling, but where Empire Falls is intimate, Gloversville is depicted as suffocating and grim. Yet in his new memoir, “Elsewhere,” the author mines grace from his gritty hometown, a place that “would nourish my creative life for more than three decades.”
Most of the author’s family remained stuck in a blue-collar trench, and it wasn’t inevitable that the author would get out. His father was a World War II hero but also a gambler. Mr. Russo preferred girls to studying, until he went off to the University of Arizona at Tucson in 1967, a campus “larger and more populous than my hometown.” In Tucson, he “would become a man, a husband, a scholar, a father and a writer.” This is remarkable given that he carried with him to Arizona freight far more hobbling than his blue-collar background; his mother literally went with him to college, quitting her job and heading west on a wisp of a GE prospect that never materialized.
Jean suffered from a condition that was then called “nerves” but is now better understood—and treatable. The author doesn’t name the diagnosis until late in his memoir, but as a boy he worried that his mother would suffer something called a “nervous breakdown.” As an only child charged with her emotional management, Mr. Russo rarely questioned his filial indenture.
But the poignancy of their situation wasn’t lost on him as he loaded her and her belongings into the “Gray Death,” a “hulking 1960 Ford Galaxie,” and inched along from Gloversville to Tucson. It is tough to imagine a less hip pre-college road trip. The underfunded Oedipal odyssey was “beyond lunatic,” he writes. Jean found work and a spot in an apartment complex in Phoenix and, placing responsibility for her stability on her son’s shoulders, told him that he was her “rock.” Could any utterance be more terrifying to a college freshman?
I was about a third of the way through Am I a Jew? during our time in New York earlier this week when I decided a change would be good. Reading about “the biblical Israelites” and “the forty years they spent wandering the Negev” probably didn’t help. Talk about undermining one’s faith in an author! I might have misread Exodus, but I seem to remember that they wandered in the Sinai. I spent a few weeks in the Negev in 1970. It wasn’t the Sinai.
No matter. I’ll get back to it. I just wanted to read something else, so I downloaded Elsewhere and began.
I’m now about two-thirds through. Elsewhere is more a remembrance of Russo’s mother than a memoir of his own life, though the two are so intertwined that separating them is difficult. With all the moves they make — Phoenix and Tucson; Altoona, Pennsylvania; New Haven; Carbondale, Illinois; Waterville and Camden, Maine; maybe more to come — the book also serves as a primer on house searching, moving, and making arrangements for an elderly parent. But mostly it’s a portrait of the relationship between Russo and his mother, with other family members making occasional appearances. The deeper one gets into the book, the more one wants to know about Russo’s wife, perhaps the family’s true hero.
I’ll finish the book this weekend, then return to Ross. Ian Rankin’s latest, Standing in Another Man’s Grave, has shipped from UK Amazon. (US publication is two months away. I couldn’t wait.) It’s due on Wednesday, and when it comes I will begin. Ross may end up being put on hold yet again.
The NYT had an interview with Russo at their arts blog ten days ago. I’ll close with an excerpt.
Richard Russo’s first memoir, “Elsewhere,” tells the story of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist’s loving and difficult relationship with his mother, Jean. Mr. Russo’s parents separated when he was a child in upstate New York. Raised by his mother, he served as her emotional wellspring, for better and worse. As Mr. Russo became a professor and a successful novelist, he remained deeply devoted to Jean, bringing her with him to Arizona and then back to the East Coast. In a recent e-mail interview, Mr. Russo discussed his decision to write about his mother, the autobiographical elements of his fiction and more. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation:
Q. Why did you decide to write this book about your mother’s life now?
A. In the months after my mother’s death, I thought about her constantly, and she was visiting my dreams, as well. All of which suggested there was unfinished business. My last three novels had all featured characters who were puzzled by destiny, asking themselves, “How did I end up here?” Now I found myself puzzling over the same issues with regard to my mother’s life and my own. We shared both a genetic (highly obsessive) nature as well as strikingly similar nurture, having grown up in the same small upstate New York mill town. How could our destinies have diverged so radically? It seemed worth investigating.
Q. Your mother “was deeply mystified by how many people apparently wanted to read stories set in the kind of industrial backwaters from which she’d worked so hard to escape.” Did she express a lot of reaction to your novels? And what was the reaction like?
A. My mother’s reaction to my novels was, as you might expect, complex. She enjoyed seeing the town that shaped both our lives (Gloversville, N.Y.) through the prism of my imagination. Recognizing her husband (my father) in “Nobody’s Fool,” she remarked that she was far fonder of him on the page than in real life. But my returning to Gloversville in my fiction troubled her. It meant, I think, that she’d failed in what she saw as her primary duty – to get me the hell away from that place and those people.