His Mother’s Son

Richard Russo
Elsewhere: A Memoir
(Knopf, 2012)

It takes all of three sentences of Richard Russo’s new memoir, Elsewhere, for the Pulitzer Prize winner to confirm what even his most casual reader must suspect: This is a man who grew up among the shuttered factories and potholed souls that make up his fiction. Russo reveals his hometown as Gloversville, New York, a tiny upstate city that saw its fortunes sink half a century ago when the leather accessory that inspired its name fell out of fashion at the same time as American labor.

It comes as a surprise, then, that Russo’s first foray into nonfiction focuses not on the inspiration for Mohawk, Empire Falls, and the other settings of his work, but his recently deceased mother, Jean. Here is a woman who faced some of the same challenges as the Peggys and Joans of Mad Men, but with a dying mill town as the backdrop in place of the big city. She raises Russo, her only child, by herself, working at General Electric’s headquarters in nearby Schenectady while her ex-husband gambles away the child-support money. They survive with help from family, but not much—Jean prides herself on her perceived independence. She lives in her parents’ house, but pays rent every month. An attractive woman, she prefers the company of GE’s educated buzzcuts to the factory men she grew up with, but never stays with one for long.

Russo describes his childhood as happy, but one interspersed with episodes of his mother’s “nerves,” screaming fits in which she’d threaten, “I can’t take it anymore!” and implore, “Don’t I deserve a life?” She’d give herself a “good talking-to” overnight, however, and with an assist from her barbiturates, appear recharged the next morning, claiming everything was fine.

Russo’s decision to attend the University of Arizona motivates Jean to make one too: She’ll tag along with him. Together, they flee “smug, complacent, self-satisfied, dimwitted” Gloversville, an escape Russo would rarely allow his characters. (Russo appears to rely on his mother’s dismal characterizations of their hometown through most of the book, leaving his own views in question until its conclusion.) But finally free of the hometown she long despised, Jean grows increasingly miserable, and her fits only get worse.

Bouncing from college town to college town with her professor-novelist son and his family, she nominally retains her cherished independence by keeping a separate home, but relies on Russo for errands, company, and, most significantly, a soft landing spot for her neuroses. She hates her apartment; he tries to find her another one across town. (This happens frequently.) She hates everything they see; he looks some more. She grudgingly accepts a new home and irrationally believes it is filthy; he hires a cleaning crew to wipe the nonexistent grease from the stovetop. Years later, alone at night in a hospice and quickly approaching death, Jean complains to her son: “It’s terrible here.”He realizes later “that for my mother here was really the place inside her head where everything played on an endless loop.”

Nearly everything we learn about Russo in Elsewhere is refracted through his perception of Jean. When he references a job he had in grad school as a singer in a popular restaurant—a shock to readers who may think of Russo as staid and steady—it’s only in passing, and only as one of several obligations dwarfed by his responsibility to his mother. We learn frustratingly little about Russo’s wife, daughters, or anyone, really, besides the duo on the book jacket. The one possible exception is Russo’s ne’er-do-well father. But even then, his biggest contribution is a question muttered to Russo from a barstool, when the author is working construction in Albany the summer he turns 21: “You do know your mother’s nuts, right?”

Where you might expect emotional blowouts and reconciliations from a memoir devoted to the author’s relationship to just one person, there is instead only Russo, through gritted teeth, again and again acquiescing to his mother’s illogical, though not particularly extraordinary, demands. The hallmark of Russo’s fiction is not explosive action, however, but the elevation of the everyday through a sharp narrative sensibility and characters—here, just two—that earn readers’ love. Those traits are on display in Elsewhere, if not to the same extent as in his best novels. Russo fans, at the very least, will enjoy picking apart the descriptions of his mother to try to determine how much of her they can find in the women in his fictional worlds. (She’s more Grace Roby than Francine Whiting, in my book.) Russo certainly sees his mother in his work: Where she found no good place to invest her inborn obsessiveness, to the detriment of her mental health, he puts the same quality into his writing, where he wrestles with the meaning of the place the two of them left behind. Russo recognizes in the acknowledgments that he owes his mother “just about everything.” Here, he repays her with a considered and honest portrait of her life, putting to full use a mind that brought him acclaim and her torment.

Contributor

Greg Ryan