by Richard Russo, Knopf, 2012, 246 pp., $25.95.
Seven novels, one collection of short stories and a Pulitzer Prize are already on Richard Russo’s bookshelves. Now, for the first time, he has written a memoir.
Those familiar with the artistry, the honesty, the compassion of Russo’s fiction will know that a Russo memoir will not be a protracted tell-all. “Elsewhere” is, in fact, brief as memoirs go. It is about his family, his work and his mother, Jean, in particular. As happens in all of Russo’s works, it is a dissection of how difficult it is to know even those closest to us.
For anyone who has treasured a Russo work, the memoir is also an intimate look into the making of a writer, one who is a brilliant storyteller who sees writing as “triage” and who has “little tolerance for literary pretension.”
There are two forces at the heart of the book. The first is his “obsessive, dogged and rigid” mother. Jean Russo has quickly separated from her gambler husband, having always been a woman “who valued few things more than her perceived independence.” It is that “perceived” independence that will prompt her every move away from (and her every return to) her hometown, with her son always at her side.
The memoir begins and ends with the second: Gloversville, “a place that’s easy to joke about unless you live there.” The main industry of the factory town has been glove making. The leather tanned there since the American Revolution has resulted in illness and death as the chemicals used by the factory has poisoned the workers, the rivers and the town.
Despite living in a close-knit community, Jean wants to be elsewhere, and she finds the ideal companion as her son makes plans to leave for an Arizona college in 1967. So they load up “The Gray Death,” a 1960 Ford Galaxie, and, as did many American dreamers, head west. Things never work out, though — his mother always seems to utter, “What an awful, awful place,” for her dreams make facing the world even harder: “Locked in a two-person drama, we had no need for additional players.”
Yet in “Elsewhere,” as he does with the characters in his fiction, Russo depicts his mother with gentle understanding. She is hardly a monster. Russo admits in some of the most delicate and generous passages in the book, “it was from my mother that I learned reading was not a dirty word but a reward, and from her I intuited a vital truth: most people are trapped in a solitary existence, a life circumscribed by want and failures of imagination, limitations from which readers are exempt.”
Such want and failures of imagination eventually devastate both his mother and his town. As he spreads his mother’s ashes, Richard Russo reaches — with a profound eloquence — a personal resolution of that devastation. It is difficult not to shed a couple of tears at the end of “Elsewhere,” one for Russo’s fundamental understanding of his mother and another for the insights he helps us make into our own parents.
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.