Richard Russo’s ‘Elsewhere’: unraveling the mystery of a troubled mother

‘Elsewhere: A Memoir’

by Richard Russo

Knopf, 243 pp., $25.95

Richard Russo has mined his childhood with enormous energy, humor and craftsmanship. He’s populated most of his stories and novels (one, “Empire Falls,” a Pulitzer Prize winner) with wonderfully believable characters found in fading mill towns nestled in upper New York State.

These towns, once vibrant, clattering, stinking centers where animal hides were turned into famously excellent gloves and other leather goods, were dying by the 1950s when Russo was growing up just north of the Adirondacks foothills. His hometown was Gloversville, in what was later labeled the Central Leatherstocking District — two names so simultaneously sad and absurd that Russo might have made them up . (A place proudly named after an extinct industry not once, but twice, is the sort of stuff Russo appreciates.)

It isn’t unusual for a novelist to tell her or his own story over and over, of course. Russo has been more transparently autobiographical and skilled than many of his peers. In fact, Russo has done such a good job of capturing his characters that “Elsewhere: A Memoir,” seems almost redundant. Or to put it another way, this book may have been written more for the author than for his longtime readers.

For Russo, the distinction between novel and memoir makes for an important journey. “My fictional hometowns are no better or worse than the real one. They’re just mine, mostly because I’m free to see them with my own eyes, whereas the real Gloversville I still see with my mother’s,” he writes.

Jean Russo was a fiercely independent woman who struggled with the many financial and social strikes against a single mother of her era, as well as what her son later discovers was obsessive-compulsive disorder. Her anxiety, odd rituals and rules, and periodic unhinged fury in which she would scream things like “Don’t I deserve a life?” in rhetorical hysteria, came to make posthumous sense as one of Russo’s daughters was successfully treated for OCD.

“From the time I was a boy I understood that my mother’s health, her well-being, was in my hands … My rock, as she was so fond of saying. My own experience, however, had yielded a different truth — that I could easily make things worse, but never better.”

He is likewise never free of his sense of duty. With the sort of painfully funny irony for which Russo is famous, even as his mother trumpets her independence, she is packing up to accompany him to college on the other side of the country. She never fully leaves. If half of what he writes about his mother’s later years is true, Russo’s wife, Barbara, should be canonized.

There is nothing wrong with memoir serving as a mature writer’s reflections on the effect of a demanding, complicated parent. One might even say that someone with Russo’s impressive bibliography of eight novels (and a successful career as a college English professor) has earned the right to work out childhood stuff, finally, without the protective tissue of fiction.

Yet at the same time, it seems to me that gifted writers who publish a memoir somewhat earlier in their career often give readers a braver, more revelatory gift — think Anne Lamott and Mary McCarthy, as well as “Poser” author Claire Dederer and Cheryl Strayed (“Wild”). I’m sure there are men lurking in this category, somewhere, but it does seem as if women are more willing to reveal themselves to their readers in this way, earlier.

Blaming a gifted writer for this may not be quite fair. Clearly Russo used his books and a lot of years to figure out his mother and their connection. He began to work the issue more pointedly in his last novel, “That Old Cape Magic,” which creates a mother every bit as exasperating, pitiful and wonderful as Russo’s own. When he was good and ready to write this memoir, he wrote it.

But those writers who fling themselves bravely into memoir earlier seem, to me, to do it better. There is an arresting rawness (think Mary Karr) and a willingness to examine oneself from every angle that is best done by the young (or at least, younger) and very flexible.

Following that logic, the upside here may be that readers discovering Russo through this memoir and then returning to his first few titles are embarking on a delightful voyage with a gifted writer about whom they now know a great deal.

Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is a writer living in Portland, Ore.