Elsewhere by Richard Russo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Until “Elsewhere,” I had read three books by Richard Russo: “Straight Man,” “Empire Falls” and “Bridge of Sighs.” The first two are 10s: “Straight Man” is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and “Empire Falls” is a layered novel that offers three-dimensional characters and a moving, intricate plot. “Bridge of Sighs” wasn’t in their league, but it was fine.
So when I picked up Russo’s memoir, “Elsewhere,” I thought: How bad could it be?
The answer: Well, it’s not bad, but it wasn’t good, either.
It’s a shame, because there are the seeds of a fine, expansive memoir within. In short, “Elsewhere” is about the fraught relationship between Russo and his mother, a troubled woman who could not let go of her only son. She followed him to college in Arizona, and then – as he established himself as a writer and moved to other places to teach – tagged along, sometimes on her own, later at his insistence.
At first, Jean Russo is a fascinating character, a beautiful single mother who sees her son as her ticket out of Gloversville, New York, the dilapidated factory town that serves as the setting (fictionalized) in almost every Russo novel. She has a fraught relationship of her own with her parents and her sister; she and Russo’s father divorced when Richard was a child, so mother and son have long been dependent on each other. Occasionally she’ll have anxious spells in which she goes into a lather about the future, only to give herself “a good talking-to” and pull out long enough to move on, whether it’s to a new place or a new job. Richard Russo is obviously exasperated by her and her need for reassurance, but he’s also a good son and makes the most of the situation, whether it’s the routine of finding her housing or making regular trips to the grocery store.
But the repetition of events – Russo’s life changes; his mother sees change as crisis; Russo gives in/calms her; mother finds her footing; repeat – becomes exasperating for the reader, too. It was obvious to me, as I imagine it is to most readers, that Jean Russo suffered from mental illness. (Late in the book Russo reveals that she likely had obsessive-compulsive disorder, but to me it could just as easily been extreme anxiety.) To Russo’s situation I am nothing if not sympathetic. I suffer from anxiety, and my mother-in-law, who now is in the grip of dementia, has a difficult relationship with her daughter, my wife. At times I had to put the book down in discomfort.
However, it was less the similarity to elements of my life and more the fact that “Elsewhere” didn’t go anywhere that diminished it in my eyes. Jean Russo barely changes; she gets older and more fragile, but there’s no 11th-hour recovery. Richard Russo, if not in denial during her life, doesn’t try to come to grips with their relationship until after she dies.
The upshot is that “Elsewhere’s” focus is too narrow. I started wondering if it would have been better as a long essay, perhaps something along the lines of David Sedaris’ recent work about his parents (if not as puckish). There are fragments of how Russo could have filled out the book more effective. He offers a capsule history of Gloversville and its destructive tanneries, which ruled the town until they pulled out and left it to rot. He alludes to life as struggling writer and then one who gets paid large sums for movie rights. (“Nobody’s Fool” became a film with Paul Newman; “Empire Falls” was an HBO miniseries with Newman, Ed Harris, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joanne Woodward.)
And there are also mentions of his long-suffering wife, Barbara, who deserved much, much more attention.
Indeed, though it’s Russo’s memoir, I found myself wondering more about Barbara as the book goes on. How did his mother’s neediness – and Russo’s own struggles as a professional writer – affect their marriage? What did she think of Jean Russo? Does she have a sense of humor? (She must.) Barbara Russo is the unsung hero of “Elsewhere,” and I imagine Richard Russo would agree. Perhaps Barbara told her husband to keep her involvement to a minimum, but a son’s relationship to his mother can’t help but illuminate a husband’s relationship to his wife. The relative invisibility of Barbara Russo is a weakness of the book; whether Richard is trying to explain his mother or himself, Barbara could have provided a great deal of illumination.
Russo remains an engaging writer. One can feel the weight of his sadness, as well as the edge of his frustration, and his descriptions of Gloversville and its leather industry are full of heart and disgust. (They make an interesting companion to Philip Roth’s passages about glovemaking in “American Pastoral.”) It’s just that his subject – whether himself, his mother, or their relationship – doesn’t provide enough revelation for a whole book.
Maybe he should have entrusted this memoir to his wife.
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Elsewhere by Richard Russo