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
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.
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.
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 November 13, 2012
The autobiographical journey of a man with infinite patience and kindness who never abandoned or dealt harshly with a demanding and unstable parent. While many would have, "Put their foot down," the author, with the support of his wife and daughters, unselfishly managed to provide as much emotional and financial security and support as he possibly could to assuage the unrelenting fears of a woman who found herself deeply disappointed in herself and troubled by unfulfilled ambitions. A very touching account of troubled times that will prove inspirational to many readers. But because this book isn't for everyone I think it rates a 3-Star ranking. Specifically, the subject matter (by its very nature) isn't easy to take and there is perhaps a bit too much detail-- which contributes to reader fatigue. As always, take it for what it is and arrive at your own conclusion.
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 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 January 11, 2013
First, let me be clear: no one has to like this book, and if you simply find it too painful, too sad, too lacking in uplift (as Russo's mother certainly would have done), no one ought to say you are wrong.
Some of the reactions are a little disconcerting, however. I suppose, because one expects Richard Russo to write well, it shouldn't be completely surprising how many of the lower ratings here accompany reviews that talk about how beautifully written this book is. but it does seem odd.
From reading others of Richard Russo's books and hearing him interviewed on the radio several times, I also expected him to be an honest writer---and he certainly fulfills that expectation as well. Yet that honesty seems to be what bothers a substantial portion of the people who give the book lower ratings!
What makes this book both as honest as humanly possible and a work of art---perhaps even an enduring one---is Russo's ability to present the history of his mother without special pleading. Keats called it "negative capability," an author's ability to set himself aside sufficiently to present reality. This is what allows us to experience the plight of the people in a narrative as if from the inside. Here, most remarkably, one of the people is the author himself, and almost all of the others presented are those he cares about most. The French theorists have taught us that this is quite impossible, but even if we grant that to be true in the most literal sense, the difference between reality and what a great book can convey "approaches zero" (to adopt a useful concept from the calculus).
A comparison: Mark Twain's autobiography (which I think is a masterpiece and love every word of) was Twain's quirky attempt to let the reader of the future "meet" him. His peculiar idea was to start to speak each morning, often about the news of the day, and let his mind wander where it would; strikes many as a recipe for boredom---but strange to tell, it can have the effect of sitting with Twain and letting the hours roll away on his talk. And since Twain was a great artist, negative capability kicks in soon enough. Russo achieves the goal by conscious craft. How the goal is achieved has its effect, but what counts is what Robert Stone (in another context) called the feeling of "light" that results.
To criticize a book because it recounts the mistakes the author has made is to entirely miss the point. (Having misunderstood the book so thoroughly, then to presume to judge the author as "not a mensch," or to pontificate on what he should have done or should have known about his mother's illness, or to suggest that his daughter should stay away from him is not only not pertinent but downright impertinent and frankly offensive.) This book is Russo's summary act of filial love.
on August 30, 2013
I seldom read memoirs, but as a fan of Russo I was drawn to his. Again he surprised me with how much humor he could draw from a tragic situation where he is saddled with a manipulative mother with serious psychological problems.
I admire him even more now that I have learned how much he gave up to watch out for his mother's welfare, and while attention in the book seems to be on his mother, we are constatntly learning more and more about Russo.
I strongly recommend the last page for a summary of how Russo's mother affected him because it is a guideline for how much all parents have affected us.