on October 30, 2012
If you want an "I did this, then I did that, and I . . . I . . . I" passive-read of a memoir, this book is not for you. Rather, Russo tells the story of himself through the story of the person who was the primary force in his life and continues to be, even after her death: his mother. As when reading a novel, the reader must interpret, draw parallels, and analyze words and actions to understand motivations and the subtext. Not only does the book tell the story about one guy who's a writer from upstate New York; like the best works, it also provides insight into the human condition, the inescapable influence of family, and the lifelong effect larger-than-life "characters" have on the children they raise.
In an era when too often the veracity of memoirs is called into question--just because of the voyeuristic, overblown adventures needed to keep contemporary readers engaged--this memoir is thoroughly original. If you have ever read a novel and wondered how much is the author's actual life and how much is fiction, and how the two influence each other, you will love this book.
on November 5, 2012
From his Pulitzer Prize-winning EMPIRE FALLS to novels like NOBODY'S FOOL and BRIDGE OF SIGHS, Richard Russo has mined a rich lode of stories based on his childhood in upstate New York's Gloversville. Until now, he's held back from writing about his experiences there in a work of nonfiction. Thanks to an invitation several years ago from Granta to contribute to its "going home" issue, he's finally produced this quietly moving memoir. But as much as it reveals some of the pleasures and pain of Russo's early life, the heart of ELSEWHERE is the story of his loving but often fractious relationship with his mother, Jean.
When the 18-year-old Russo was admitted to the University of Arizona in 1967, Jean took advantage of the opportunity to flee her compulsive gambler husband and the upstairs apartment she shared with her only child in her parents' Gloversville home. Driving a 1960 Ford Galaxie he christened the "Gray Death" (a vehicle that could not go in reverse, in a nice bit of symbolism), Russo and his mother embarked on what turned out to be a death-defying cross-country trek. Jean's quixotic decision to abandon a secure, well-paying job with General Electric in Schenectady, expecting she'd easily land a comparable position with the same employer in Arizona, was emblematic of what Russo calls her "intractable determination that was responsible for her seemingly endless suffering."
Soon their prospects diverged. Richard, with his Ph.D. in English, eventually left academia to become a full-time novelist. When Hollywood discovered his work, he added well-paying screenwriting jobs to his resume. But after a brief period of independence in Phoenix, Jean's life turned into a dispiriting odyssey, trailing her son and his extraordinarily patient wife and children from Tucson to Carbondale, Illinois and eventually to Maine. In describing it, Russo offers ample evidence for his belief that his mother "never considered us two separate people but rather one entity, oddly cleaved by time and gender, like fraternal twins somehow born twenty-five years apart, destined in some strange way to share a common destiny."
After Russo accepted a position at Colby College in 1991, it's easy to lose track of his mother's series of moves from one apartment to another, each experience seemingly unhappier than the last. The sequence becomes mind-numbing, perhaps in the way it felt to Russo as he lived it: his mother's complaints about a newly-chosen home; the difficulties of a move; a too-brief period of relative calm and then a crisis that began the cycle all over again. It doesn't take long to realize that something more than what the family referred to vaguely as Jean's "nerves" lay at the root of her psychological turmoil. Russo's patience in parceling out those details displays an admirable economy in both its content and its prose.
The account of his mother's final days in Maine and Russo's reflections on the complicated drama he and his mother acted out are similarly understated and all the more moving as a result. There's no false note of closure or facile comprehension in resigned observations like this one:
"From the time I was a boy I understood that my mother's health, her well-being, was in my hands. How often over the years did she credit me, or my proximity, with restoring her to health? My rock, as she was so fond of saying, always there when she needed me most. My own experience, however, had yielded a different truth --- that I could easily make things worse, but never better."
As Gloversville, when hats and gloves went out of fashion and the low-level factory jobs involved in making them began to move overseas, its economy, dependent on those goods, quickly collapsed. The modest existence the town's workers were able to scratch out before that happened was anything but pleasant. There's a gruesome description of work in the beam-house, the place the animal hides first were processed at the tannery where his grandfather worked as a glove-cutter, and a catalog of the toxic brew of by-products the chrome tanning process released into the town's air and water. Russo's home town was the "canary in the mine shaft" for other small towns where "you could have strafed Main Street with an automatic weapon without endangering a soul." His obituary for Gloversville is as moving as anything he's written in his acclaimed novels and an apt companion to the family story.
Whether it's his clear-eyed portrait of the mixture of warmth and frustration that marked his relationship with the woman who called him "Ricko-Mio" or the depiction of his hometown, in its heyday and in its desolation, ELSEWHERE is notable for its lack of sentimentality. That doesn't mean it's lacking in emotion. There are deep feelings coursing through this book. As we learn some of the story of Richard Russo's life, we can begin to appreciate the roots of his skill in transforming it into fiction.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg
As with all of Richard Russo's work (Empire Falls,Nobody's Fool), this book rings with wonderful and colorful writing. But I guess his story just hit too close to home for me to enjoy it.
Mr. Russo spends his life--and sacrifices his time and loyalty to his own wife and family--trying to placate his irrational mother. He's the only child of a needy single mother: wherever he goes, she goes, even to college. It's clear that she is mentally unstable, but incredibly, Mr. Russo doesn't see that until after her death. Early on, he says a few things that make it clear he feels reponsible for her unhappiness: "She presented herself... as a Nora Charles searching for her Nick, except instead of having a yippy little dog for a companion, she had me."
After his mother's death, Mr. Russo comes across information about obsessive compulsive behavior and makes the connection with his mother's behavior. I'm not sure why he hadn't heard of OCD before. Someone in my family was diagnosed in the fourth grade and that was almost 20 years ago, so the disorder wasn't unknown during the time Mr. Russo was schlepping his mother from one city to another and from one apartment to the next in a vain attempt to make her happy "elsewhere."
I know the futility of trying to make an unhappy mother happy, so this was a painful read for me. I just wanted the author to stop trying, set the mother down in one place and ignore her misery, and lavish his attention on his long-suffering wife. Why his wife put up with her husband's unhealthy obsession with his tiresome mother is a mystery the author doesn't delve into. Frankly, I'd like to read her book.
I have believed for several years now that Richard Russo-- I'm embarrassed to say whose novels I keep buying and have yet to read one of them since life keeps getting in my way-- is the most decent of human beings. I first came to that conclusion when I did read SHE'S NOT THERE by Jennifer Finney Boylan, one of his teaching colleagues at Colby College. Then I heard him read from THAT OLD CAPE MAGIC and my original opinion of him was set in concrete. And as everyone knows, that is not always the case when you actually meet a writer. His decency and kindness seep through in every page of ELSEWHERE as he remembers his mother's life and his taking care of her throughout her many years of undiagnosed obsessive compulsive-disorder. He says in the "Prologue" that he calls this book a memoir because he does not know "what else to call it--a story of intersections: of place and time, of private and public, of linked destinies and flawed devotion. It's more my mother's story than mine, but it's mine, too, because until just a few years ago she was seldom absent from my life."
Mr. Russo was born and grew up in the mill town of Gloversville, New York. If you can write a memoir about a town, then Gloversville is the third subject of this book. It's where the author got his title from: as both he and his mother Jean moved from place to place-- Arizona, Illinois, and finally Maine-- she couldn't wait to get out of Gloversville. Then when she was "elsewhere," she always wanted to move back and did for a short time after she had lost a job in Tucson. When Russo decided in 1967 to go to college in Arizona, she just loaded up their newly-purchased 1960 battleship gray Ford Galaxie and moved with him. Their real-life cross-country trip from upstate New York to Arizona is one of the hilarious parts of this memoir-- and every bit as funny as the fictional one from the movie "Little Miss Sunshine"-- that in many ways will break your heart. Mr. Russo hardly knew how to drive, (his mother could not although she later learned) had had practically no experience on interstate highways and certainly none pulling a trailer. He quickly learned that he should never park the car and trailer anywhere that required him to put the car in reverse. He admits to having a love-hate relationship with Gloversville, himself, and keeps writing about the town in his fiction.
In the 1950's, Jean Russo's condition was simply called "nerves." "This was something the whole family seemed aware of, but no one talked about it." Sound familiar? She was medicated with Phenobarbital after she told her family doctor that the stress of being a single mother and a fulltime worker at GE was causing her "condition," and later with other drugs like Valium. Over the years her condition worsened. Perhaps Mr. Russo should have seen the danger signs; others did. His father, who was separated from his mother, once told him when Russo was twenty-one and both he and his father were very drunk that "I couldn't be your father without being married to that crazy woman." And his father-in-law gave the following advice to his daughter Barbara, upon learning that the newly-wed couple planned to let Russo's mother move in with them until she could find a job and start a new life in Tucson: "Don't do it. If you let that woman in, you'll never be rid of her." When it was too late, Mr. Russo learned, after his daughter was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and he read a book on the subject, that his mother had been suffering from OCD all these years.
In spite of Mrs. Russo's many problems that threatened to shipwreck her life and those of Richard and his wife Barbara, who surely must be a saint, the author says in a recent interview that all the blessings in his life-- and he admits to many-- and the things he values most is because of his mother. When her troubled life was finally over and she was no longer in a cage, as she had described herself so many times over the years, Mr. Russo scattered her ashes in Martha's Vineyard, and unable to say anything else after both his daughters had spoken, recited that glorious Shakespeare poem that begins "Fear no more the heat o' the Sun/Nor the furious Winter's rages." Not a bad sendoff.
When memoirs-- often by someone the world does not know and should not-- are being published all over the place, it is refreshing to read one by someone like Mr. Russo-- so completely honest-- who has something to say and says it so well.
on December 3, 2012
I have waited 2 weeks since finsihing this book to write a review. I still don;t know quite what to say. The writing is wonderful, as expected, and the subject matter is just what he says it will be -- the story about his intricate, demanding, troubled, lovely, maddening, relationship with his mentally ill Mother. Too much detail? yes. Almost too frustrating to read? Yes. As a person who has (very) mild OCD I found it exasperating that everyone knew his Mom was "crazy" but didn;t ask anyone in the mental health community for help. They allowed her to "self-medicate" for most of her life. And yes, OCD is a relatively recent diagnosis but it was so PAINfully obvious that this woman was deeply unstable that it is very hard to read about it and not be judgemental as to his "help" and her behaviors. True he did not abandon her - heck it sounds like he barely even confronted her about her issues--until she was in her 80's & her health demanded that her "stubborness" be dealt with more sanely, and I think most people in this situation would have distanced themselves from her because, well, she was crazy! Hard to deal with, impossible to "keep happy" & in spite of her protestations to the contrary almost entirely DE-pendent on him and his family. I do believe that maybe Mr Russo's wife deserves all of the money he earns from this book! Talk about a difficult Mother-in-law..... so I read the book....tossing it to the floor several times & I got thru it but I really cannot recommend it to anyone else. Hence the 3 Star rating which is a bit of a cop out but ........the book IS written with love, devotion and intensity but it is utterly frustrating & ultimately unsatisfying.
on November 14, 2012
This book is more "mom"-oir than memoir. You won't learn much about Rick Russo except as it relates to his mother's inescapable grip on him. Jean Russo was one doozy of a dippy demanding dame. She taught Rick to think of himself and his mother as essentially one person -- "You and me against the world." Even as an adult, he couldn't break free of her hold on him. For over 35 years he catered to her ridiculous demands, which cost him a fortune financially and mentally.
Ever since Rick was a boy, he'd been warned about Mom's "nervous condition." He lived in fear of upsetting her, and she played him like a squeezebox. She never mastered many coping skills, so she compensated by overdeveloping her manipulative muscles.
I couldn't decide which of them was more deserving of a good throttling. Mom was so demanding, and full of unreasonable complaints and expectations. Rick was far too accommodating and quick to back down, thus encouraging her absurd behavior. After she died, he figured out that her "nervous condition" was OCD, and late in the book he takes ownership of his role as her enabler.
Jean Russo didn't display the classic symptoms of OCD -- hand washing and the like. Her obsession was more expensive. She kept moving from city to city and state to state, essentially following Rick and his wife all over the country. Every time she decided to move again, it was up to Rick to find her an apartment she wouldn't bitch about, and then he'd pay all of her moving costs.
This wasn't really a four-star read for me. Jean Russo was just too annoying. The repetitiveness of her demands and complaints and all her moving around got old. I'm rating generously because of the impeccable writing, and because of Rick Russo's honesty and courage in telling this story. There's no sentimentality here, and he's always gentle in his portrayal of his mother, even at her exasperating worst. Late in the book you can see a clear therapeutic benefit for Russo in writing about his mother and himself.
If you've enjoyed Russo's novels, you'll discover here how he earned his impressive understanding of comic and tragic familial connections, and of the inner distress of conflicted characters. You'll also see how his hometown of Gloversville, New York served as the prototype for his fictional dying mill towns.
Rating = 3.5 stars
on October 30, 2013
This was a telling personal memoir of a parental relationship that is, no doubt, repeated in many families. The writing is Russo, so it read well but was frustrating because of the subject. It is the story of a son's repeated and repeated enabling (I don't usually like that term because it is used too often to describe kindness) of a pathological parent's (his mother) demands and manipulations that last nearly a lifetime. It is exasperating to see him fail over and over to get an insight into her problem and his failure to seek some kind of assistance in understanding her problems. He was blessed with a wife and family whose tolerance must have been sorely tried. His wife must be an exceptional human being for sticking it out with him through this. His discovery that she had a diagnosis and that there might have been at least a few alternatives available had he sought them out is bit annoying to me a retired psychologist. It no way diminishes my respect for Russo the human or the writer and his work.
I've "known" Richard Russo my entire life, not just since 1993 when I read his first three books in trade paperback in fast order: OneTwoThree. They were gifted to me by my Aunt Alain for the same reason that she gifted so much Edward Albee: It was a way to return to my own home. My family has owned a vast farm in one of those small, worn, Central New York Towns since 1836. It is about an hour or so west of the town in which Russo grew up. The house on the farm was built during the towns high point and though our town did not proper as a mill town, it prospered all the same. Small and comfortable at the foot of one of the Finger Lakes (the smallest lake and the smallest town) my hometown was a spiritual center during the 19th century and like most of New York State after the First World War it began to disintegrate. The family dairy farms sustained it for much of the 20th century but today these have been replaced by vast corporate farms where the animals are not named and treated well and no one bothers keeping barn cats to control mice (let alone naming them) and those wooden barns are melting into the ground like a dropped scoop of ice cream in summer. Every road looks like this and every town looks like this. Aunt Alain gave me "Mohawk", "the Risk Pool" and "Nobody's Fool" in one pile and said to me, "This man has captured the honest essence of New York State. Not just the physical grayness of one of its winters and the chipped paint of houses with sagging clothes lines and rusty American made pickup trucks, but the people themselves, flannel shirts with jeans and lifelong, low paying jobs. No one in these towns really has a career and from the outside no one seems to have purpose to his life. There are more mobile homes than houses with basements and there are as many bars as churches."
So I read these books and indeed, Alain had been right. Even had I not grown up in this tiny town at the foot of Owasco Lake, there was a magic to Russo's writing that made these towns feel real to anyone or everyone. Like the books I mentioned and the subsequent "Straight Man," "Empire Falls" (Kudos for the Pulitzer Prize and the brilliant HBO film) "The Bridge of Sighs" "That Old Cape Cod Magic" and his collection of short stories "The Whore's Child" Russo writes very much the way Stephen Sondheim composes. Every single piece is different and the voice is created to best tell the story b8ut when you step back and look at the piece as a whole, there is no question who wrote it. And indeed Richard Russo is as good a writer as Sondheim is a theatre composer.
With that all in mind, I pounced upon "Elsewhere" the moment I knew it existed. Russo has subtitled it "A Memoir" and with the same gossipy curiosity that I hold for all my favorite writers I dove into the book. It's important that we all recognize the difference between a memoir and an autobiography. And autobiography is the self written story of one's life, generally wri9tten late enough in life for the entire story to be told. A Memoir is self written but about just a faction of the life or a particular element to one's life. With "Elsewhere" Richard Russo stretches this definition even farther.
Many of Russo's books end with irony or with a surprise but are handled so well that we are carefully led there. "Elsewhere" is the exception, perhaps because real life, unlike fiction, is not intended to be an escape for people. One who reads novels is searching for an escape from his life and to some, me for example, books are as important as a narcotic to an addict. "Elsewhere" is subsequently very much like some of the novels or stories of Shirley Jackson. We read through this book and we are captivated almost at once. Within the first fifteen pages we begin to feel as though Russo is writing a biography of his mother. It remains this way as their lives proceed (Russo skillfully takes us through five decades in about two hundred pages and at no time do we feel cheated or rushed.) and then - just as most of Shirley Jackson's work - we are shocked to discover at the ending that he has been travelling two roads at once and the surprise ending, and indeed there is a surprise ending, perhaps not "The Lottery," but certainly as big as a memoir could produce, virtually takes the breath away. In some ways, at the very last moment "Elsewhere" becomes a traditional memoir. The meaning of the book and its title become apparent in one powerful page that we could never have guessed and indeed will never arise again.
So that it is not a memoir after all, since the entire story is true but it's meant to have a direct point, like a novel, and a plot that develops and then reveals, like a novel, and the story stops because an author chooses to stop at that point, like a novel. Everything about "Elsewhere" is written as though it were fiction, another genius novel by Richard Russo. Because of the craft that all of this requires, coupled with the self examination of his own life and family, this is perhaps the most brilliant piece of writing that Richard Russo has ever published.
That said, it is not just Russo's native town to which we all connect but his ability to honestly depict characters, even himself. He shows warts and all, as they say, but Russo justifies every quirk and, in the case of "Elsewhere" this justification is not at all easy. Not only does he write it but he makes us buy the premise and it's honest. He is able to explain the quirks in hisw characters the way that we wish we could explain ourselves.
This book is compulsive. More so than any book I've read in the past seven years. Critics are always saying, "I couldn't put it down" but the truth is that this is rarely a pure fact. With "Elsewhere" I sincerely kept the book with me, read at the dining table, rudely in front of company, in the bathroom and in the car, forcing my seventy-seven year old mother to do the driving. ("Only about fifty pages to go," I'd say) I've completed it after an all-nighter and, because of my excitement over a piece of literature of this quality; I opened my lap top and started the first draft of this essay. It takes remarkable writing to incite this passion in me and Richard Russo is one of the few writers alive (if not in history) capable to excite me in this way. I strongly recommend everything Richard Russo has ever written but if you're going to read only one of his books, "Elsewhere" is the one to read.
on February 22, 2013
Mr. Russo, with his usual lush and intelligent prose, paints a picture of his ding bat mother that only a masochist could understand. This smothering, self-absorbed woman takes over the life of her only child and remains like a rucksack full of rocks till she mercifully expires. I commend the writer for refraining from passing judgment (which endears him to the reader),and simply presenting her bizarre behavior for others to judge. I am sure Mr. Russo appreciates the forbearance and understanding of his wife and daughters and am happy for him that his own life can now resume.
on May 24, 2015
Who is the saint? Richard Russo for attempting to cope with his mother for decades, or Richard's wife for putting up with the mother's presence for such an extended period? Perhaps both of them qualify to some extent, but it seems to me that Richard's wife was more long-suffering, and showed more flexibility and grace in her response to the situation. It's difficult to know just how much the wife had to endure, however, as she was not a major figure in the memoir.
The "star" of this book is Jean, Richard's mother. While the reader gets a fairly good idea how Richard's life developed, nothing happens to him without the major involvement of his mother. Was it a toxic mother/son relationship? Hard to say. If most people experienced what Richard did, I think they would have a strong resentment about their mother's actions, demands, and weaknesses. But Richard doesn't seem to feel that way. While he describes the difficulties his mother causes, he doesn't seem bitter or even flummoxed by them. At least in what he says, he seems a remarkably laid, back, even positive, son.
I'm a great fan of Russo's books, and reading this "memoir," or whatever it is, gives me more insight into the man. I should probably read more memoirs, as I tend to develop a (skewed?) picture of a good author simply by reading her/his books. In Russo's case, I had the image of him living in a small upstate New York town, where the people more or less bumbled along, but ended up having a fairly adequate and fulfilling life (with some exceptions, of course). But Gloversville, the real New York town in Russo's and Jean's experience, seems like a backwater - a boring, toxic place. So maybe Russo's books see small-town New York through rose-colored glasses, or maybe both images are part of a more complex picture. In any case, people are never exactly the way we think they are - whether fictional or real.
Is Jean "crazy"? That word is actually used in the text, spoken initially by a bystander. It develops that she does have mental problems, but nevertheless, she seems to get her way, and to be a remarkable survivor of the tribulations life tosses her way. Wherever she is, "Elsewhere" would be better.