Review: ‘Elsewhere’ by Richard Russo


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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Review: ‘Dreaming the Beatles’ by Rob Sheffield

Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole WorldDreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World by Rob Sheffield

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As long as I can remember, I’ve loved the Beatles.

I’m not exaggerating. In fact, I’ve loved the Beatles since before I have memories.

One of my first memories of identifying a record dates to when I was 5 or 6, circa 1970-71, when I heard “I Should Have Known Better” and “I’ll Get You” and knew they were by the Fab Four. (I did think the former’s title was “I Never Knew What a Kiss Could Be,” however. I had a lot to learn.) By that time, I had inherited my aunt’s singles collection, which included a number of Beatles 45s with the yellow-and-orange Capitol swirl. I played them constantly.

Even before owning the singles, I’d probably been hearing them for years. I watched the Beatles cartoon series in reruns (favorite songs: “Anna” and “And Your Bird Can Sing”). My aunt was a full-blown fan and visited my family in the summers – including 1966, when she saw the Beatles at Shea Stadium. And given that I was born in 1965, I suspect I heard the Beatles in the womb, because my mother – though preferring Eddie Fisher and Connie Francis to those long-haired British kids – liked to listen to the radio, and the radio would have been full of Beatles.

My love of the group has never really diminished. In high school I wore a T-shirt with “Beatle Maniac” on the back; in college, though my tastes branched out in many directions, I always came back to “Revolver,” or the White Album, or “Abbey Road”; and to this day, after decades of Beatle immersion, I continue to add to my Beatle knowledge, going from Nicholas Schaffner’s “The Beatles Forever” to Philip Norman’s “Shout” to Bob Spitz’s “The Beatles” to the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s biography, while consuming other memoirs, magazine articles and comment boards.

I also know I’m not alone in my … obsession. So I was curious to see what Rob Sheffield – who has written some terrific Beatles-related articles for Rolling Stone – had to say about the Beatles’ hold on popular culture, the topic of his book “Dreaming the Beatles.”

Surprisingly, I think he missed the point.

Now, “Dreaming the Beatles” is engaging and interesting. Sheffield is too good a writer, and too knowledgeable a fan, to have produced a bad Beatles book. But what’s missing from “Dreaming the Beatles” (especially given its title) is something of the mysterious and mystical.

Before you roll your eyes again, hear me out.

In recent years, I’ve started thinking of the Beatles as something approaching a miracle. I know skeptics will scoff – every “miracle” can be read as the product of luck, timing and coincidence – but, still, what are the chances that four boys far removed from the cultural hub of their country find each other to form a good band, one of the best ever? What are the chances that they’re not only talented musicians but incredible songwriters? That they complement one another so well? That they meet both a manager and producer who underscore but don’t undermine their strengths? That they not only ride a rocket ship to fame – that’s happened countless times – but prove so adept at their art that they reshape not only popular music but popular culture as well? That their story (looked at from years later, of course) has an amazing arc that has them breaking up at the height of their powers, so we never have to deal with the usual – and inevitable – decline?

What are the chances that the corpus should be so free of waste? The Beatles produced just over 200 songs on 14 albums (counting the “Past Masters” singles collection) and virtually every one has something to recommend it. Hell, even the ones on the Anthology series have something to recommend them. (Though one of Sheffield’s favorites, “It’s All Too Much,” is one I struggle to recommend. Well, there’s George Harrison’s great lyric, “Show me that I’m everywhere, and get me home for tea.”) They were brilliant editors and remarkably self-contained. They could play most of the instruments and knew how they wanted others to sound (with the help of George Martin, of course).

Above all, they had an unmatchable chemistry. When I listen to the Beatles, no matter where I drop the needle, I can feel the propulsion, often more than that – I can feel an incredible love and joy. For all of my worship of the late-‘60s Kinks or the Clash’s “London Calling” album or the pocket-tight thwock of a Benny Benjamin drum part, no other artist has ever been able to sustain that sheer energy so long and so consistently. The Beatles make me happy, and I’m not the only one who feels that way.

So, again, what are the chances?

It’s an impossible question to answer (even John Lennon, in his demystifying “Lennon Remembers” phase, dismissed the group as “just a band who made it very, very big”), but Sheffield doesn’t really try hard. He does note their fearlessness – this was a band of men who were unafraid to sing girl-group songs without changing the sex and made those songs work brilliantly – and their obvious determination to push one another. (Until, well, they broke.) But something is missing – some music theory, some additional cultural context, some flights of fancy, something. (Not the Harrison song – that’s in here.)

Now, I know I sound dismissive. That’s not quite right. I enjoyed “Dreaming the Beatles.” Sheffield does get at the fact that the Beatles pretty much created the template for rock ‘n’ roll lives to the point where it became either myth or cliché, take your pick: the early member who died tragically, the change in drummers that sealed the unit, the wives who broke up that old band of mine. The story has become so well-known that even the parodies have become “part of the soup,” in Harrison’s phrase. (Harrison, who gets off some nifty sarcastic lines in Eric Idle’s recent memoir, could also be surprisingly defensive about the group.)

Sheffield highlights the importance of Nicholas Schaffner’s “The Beatles Forever,” a 1977 volume that was the entry point for many post-breakup fans (OK, like me), notes the impact of Lennon’s murder on stoking interest, and offers some nice character sketches and song analyses. Also some intriguing facts: Apparently, in the group’s lawsuit against “Beatlemania,” John Lennon wrote in a statement that “I and the three other Beatles have plans to stage a reunion concert, to be recorded, filmed and marketed around the world.” He made that statement just after Thanksgiving, 1980.

Still, that also highlights what’s missing: the motivation of Beatles fans. One of my favorite books, surprisingly unmentioned in “Dreaming the Beatles,” is Mark Shipper’s “Paperback Writer,” a 1978 novel in which the group reunites in 1979 and proceeds to flop. Things get so bad that they’re forced to tour as Peter Frampton’s opening act. The late ‘70s was a time when Beatles reunion talk was in the air, but Shipper knew the reason had less to do with the Beatles than us: If the Beatles got back together, we could return to the garden. That was never going to happen, and Lennon’s death put an end to the dream.

Some quibbles: Sheffield has McCartney’s “My Love,” which he roasts mercilessly, as released in 1971; it actually came out in 1973, which Sheffield surely knows. Also, he says “radio wouldn’t touch” McCartney’s 1985 single “Spies Like Us” (done for the film). They must have touched it a bit, since it made the Top Ten. (The song is awful, as Sheffield says.) And I was surprised that a fan like Sheffield didn’t bother to look up the man he puts down as “Anonymous Session Guy” in McCartney’s video for “So Bad.” Uh, that would be Eric Stewart, who also played on the recording and was better known as part of 10cc – a band who could also create clever hooks, particularly in their hit, “The Things We Do for Love.”

Anyway, I’ve spent 1,300 words criticizing “Dreaming the Beatles” for not really getting at the meat of how the Beatles became THE BEATLES – the measuring stick for every rock band from now until probably forever, their music and lives permeating the culture – yet I don’t think I did any better. It gets back to the old Elvis Costello/Frank Zappa/Martin Mull quote: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

You know where the answer is? In the grooves.

One, two, three, fo —

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