Elsewhere Richard Russo's Memoir of an Unusual Relationship

Elsewhere: A Memoir. (2012)
By Richard Russo
Knopf, ISBN: 978-0307959539.
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I’ve long been a fan of Richard Russo’s novels. Few other writers better capture the rhythms of working-class life; fewer still have his grasp on blue-collar dreams imagined and deflated. Elsewhere tells us what we’ve long suspected—he fashioned his imaginative worlds from a time-honored source: his own experience. Russo’s hometown of Gloversville, New York, is the real-life template for fictional towns such as Mohawk, Empire Falls, and Thomaston. For those who don’t know Gloversville, it’s a town of around 15,000 located on the Mohawk River/Erie Canal in Fulton County, New York, northwest of Schenectady. As its name suggests, it was once the dress-glove manufacturing capital of the nation. Given that almost no one wears dress gloves any more, you can predict what kind of town Gloversville is these days.

As Russo relates, it was well on its way to becoming a seedy postindustrial town by the time he was born in 1949. How many kids question their lives? Young “Rick” Russo thought little of Gloversville’s shabby exterior until he reached his late teens. Nor did he ask too many questions about why his parents split, why he and his mother lived with relatives, or why his mother was so combative and odd. Those who’ve seen the movie Nobody’s Fool—adapted from Russo’s 1993 novel--might recall a scene in which construction worker Sully (Paul Newman) reveals to his college professor son that his mother was not just “difficult,” rather clinically unbalanced. That’s autobiographical.

Elsewhere is Russo’s memoir of his relationship with his mother, Jean, who was equal parts remarkable and impossible. The remarkable part was being a single mother and professional working woman in the 1950s and early 1960s, a time in which divorce carried a stigma of shame and second-wave feminism was not yet conceived. She doted on Rick, but also enlisted him as her ally against her foes­—which turned out to be just about everyone: her parents, her siblings, her former in-laws, her former husband, her employers, local merchants, tradesmen…. Jean was also so ubiquitous that Rick thought it unusual, but not bizarre when she followed him to Arizona when he left for college, after first insisting that he get a license. (Jean never learned; she used to commute by train to General Electric in Schenectady.) The memoir contains a harrowing tale of Rick’s first time behind the wheel—hauling a U-Haul trailer full of the family belongings from Gloversville to Phoenix, a journey that often took the pair through rather than around major metropolitan areas. In Rick’s mind, Jean’s sojourn to the desert was the logical extension of her frequently voiced rants about leaving Gloversville for someplace where she could “breathe.”

By the time Jean’s mental illness was revealed, Jean had become a permanent part of her son’s life, as much as he often wished she was not. She was there when he was in Arizona, there when he got a teaching job at Southern Illinois University, there when he moved on to Colby College (Maine), there when he married, and there when he chucked teaching to become a fulltime novelist. She always insisted on living independently, though no place was ever good enough and oblivious of the strain she placed on Rick’s family and finances. We can easily see what it took Rick decades to admit: Jean did just have bad “nerves;” she was mentally ill—early onset dementia as it turned out. And Gloversville had a dual meaning for her—a place she said she wished to escape, but also the familiar refuge to which she periodically fled when her demons became too powerful to fight in unfamiliar places.

His mother’s shifting mental states, the duality of what Gloversville meant to her, and his own journey from working-class lad to working writer are among the many ironic meanings of the memoir title Elsewhere. Another is Russo’s own relationship to Gloversville, a place now so far past its prime that he describes his main drag as one where a person could fire an automatic weapon without injuring anyone. He feels blessed to have escaped, yet like his mother, he constantly returns there in his fiction.  

Elsewhere is a fascinating set of character studies that give insight into a writer, but also into how American industry and society has changed over the past 60 years. Russo clearly intended it as a love story between mother and son, though frankly it’s often hard to see why he was so devoted to Jean. We see her fierceness, independence, and pluck; what is missing is a sense of her as loving, charitable, or selfless. I suspect most readers will share my audible relief when Jean finally passed in 2007. They may also share my view that Russo’s wife, Barbara, should be nominated for sainthood, both for putting up with Jean, and for accepting her husband’s (often enabling) devotion to her. It’s a good thing for Russo that Barbara does not have Jean’s personality, or she would long ago have been—elsewhere!—Rob Weir  

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