Elsewhere

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After eight commanding works of fiction, the Pulitzer Prize winner now turns to memoir in a hilarious, moving, and always surprising account of his life, his parents, and the upstate New York town they all struggled variously to escape.

Anyone familiar with Richard Russo's acclaimed novels will recognize Gloversville once famous for producing that eponymous product and anything else made of leather. This is where the author grew up, the only son of an aspirant mother ...

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Elsewhere: A memoir

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Overview

After eight commanding works of fiction, the Pulitzer Prize winner now turns to memoir in a hilarious, moving, and always surprising account of his life, his parents, and the upstate New York town they all struggled variously to escape.

Anyone familiar with Richard Russo's acclaimed novels will recognize Gloversville once famous for producing that eponymous product and anything else made of leather. This is where the author grew up, the only son of an aspirant mother and a charming, feckless father who were born into this close-knit community. But by the time of his childhood in the 1950s, prosperity was inexorably being replaced by poverty and illness (often tannery-related), with everyone barely scraping by under a very low horizon.

A world elsewhere was the dream his mother instilled in Rick, and strived for herself, and their subsequent adventures and tribulations in achieving that goal—beautifully recounted here—were to prove lifelong, as would Gloversville's fearsome grasp on them both. Fraught with the timeless dynamic of going home again, encompassing hopes and fears and the relentless tides of familial and individual complications, this story is arresting, comic, heartbreaking, and truly beautiful, an immediate classic.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

As the author of The Bridge of Sighs, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls, and other novels, Richard Russo is known for the unblinking honesty of his portrayals and the clarity of his writing. Those attributes figure decisively in his memoir about growing up in economically vulnerable upstate New York. His nostalgic recreations of his parents, especially his mother, are leavened by comic stories and generous swaths of local color. A candid look back by a talented writer; easy to recommend. Now in trade paper and NOOK Book.

The New York Times Book Review
…absorbing…For a novelist who likes to lavish attention on his vivid characters, Russo deliberately provides only thumbnail sketches of the bit players here, including a few piquant moments with relatives and incidental people met over the years…This stirring book belongs to Jean and Rick.
—Meg Wolitzer
The Washington Post
Russo beautifully conjures the world in which his spirited, pretty mother moved…This is no easy journey. By the end of this book, we come to realize what it means to be flayed, cured, dried and cut into a skin that will fit someone else's hand. We learn that there is a "terrible possibility that what nourishes us in this life might be the very thing that steals…life away." A mother gives us breath, but she can also suck away the oxygen. All the same, it's impossible to finish this book without sympathy for Jean Russo and the lifelong condition that hounded her…Redemption is always the prize in a Russo story. Nowhere do we see that more clearly than in Elsewhere, a brave little book in which a writer spins deprivation into advantage, suffering into wisdom, and a broken mother into a muse.
—Marie Arana
Publishers Weekly
The Gloversville, N.Y., native and Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist (Empire Falls) fashions a gracious memoir about his tenacious mother, a fiercely independent GE employee who nonetheless relied on her only son to manage her long life. Separated from her gambler husband, Russo’s mother, Jean, resolved that she and her son were a “team,” occupying the top floor of Russo’s grandparents’ modest house in a once-thriving factory town where “nine out of ten dress gloves in the United States were manufactured,” the author notes proudly. Yet its heyday had long passed, cheap-made goods had invaded, and the town by the late 1960s was depressed and hollowed out; Russo’s intrepid, if erratic mother encouraged Russo to break out of the “dimwitted ethos of the ugly little mill town” and attend college at the University of Arizona, in Tucson. Except she came, too, on a hilariously delineated road trip in the 1960 Ford Galaxie Russo purchased and nicknamed the Gray Death. Despite the promise of a new job and new life, however, Jean was never content; many years later when Russo and his wife and increasing family moved from Tucson back to the East Coast as his job as an English professor and writer dictated, his mother had to be resettled nearby, too, in a long era of what Russo eventually saw as enabling her obsessive-compulsive disorder. Russo’s memoir is heavy on logistical detail—people moving around, houses packed and unpacked—and by turns rueful and funny, emotionally opaque and narratively rich. (Nov.)
Kirkus Reviews
The celebrated best-selling novelist recalls his late mother's powerful, often frustrating influence on his life and work. Fans of Russo's fiction (That Old Cape Magic, 2009, etc.) likely know that the model for his novels' working-class Northeast settings is Gloversville, N.Y., a factory town that fell on hard times in the 1960s. The author escaped his hometown when he went to college, but not without some company: His mother joined him as they drove to Arizona, and she'd rarely be far from him in the decades that followed. Russo describes how his life decisions were often limited by the need to accommodate his mother's particular needs and, later, debilitating illness: One of the book's most powerful chapters describes the author's mother as her dementia begins to set in, fussing over a clock as if the device itself had the power to control time. (What his extended family and estranged father called "nerves" was likely a severe case of obsessive-compulsive disorder.) Though she routinely made her son's life more difficult, this book isn't borne out of bitterness, yet he doesn't place his mother in soft focus either. What Russo strives to do is place his mother's life in a social, cultural and personal context. He explores how her options were limited as a single mother in the '60s, as a product of a manufacturing culture that collapsed before her eyes, and as a woman who needed to define herself through other men. That Russo found the time and emotional space to write novels is somewhat miraculous given her demands, but he acknowledges he couldn't have written them without her. He inherited her sense of place as well as her compulsive personality, and this book contains much of the grace and flinty humor of his fiction. An affecting yet never saccharine glimpse of the relationship among place, family and fiction.
From the Publisher
“It’s rare for a novelist to write candidly about the real behind the imagined. About a lifetime of work and the very person who inspired it. Yet that is precisely what Richard Russo has done in his memoir.... Redemption is always the prize in a Russo story. Nowhere do we see that more clearly than in Elsewhere, a brave little book in which a writer spins deprivation into advantage, suffering into wisdom, and a broken mother into a muse. Wanting him to be anywhere but Gloversville, Jean Russo did everything she could to make her son leave. And then, unable to feel whole anywhere outside it, she eventually brought him home.” —Marie Arana, The Washington Post
 
“Intimate and powerful...an impeccably told tale.” —Julia M. Klein, Chicago Tribune

“A gorgeously nuanced memoir about Russo’s mother and his own lifelong tour of duty spent—lovingly and exhaustedly—looking out for her. . . . Russo is the Bruce Springsteen of novelists . . . in a paragraph or even a phrase, he can summon up a whole world, and the world he writes most poignantly about is that of the industrial white working class.” —Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air
 
“Filled with insights, by turn tender and tough, about human fidelity, frailty, forbearance, and fortitude.” —Glenn C. Altschuler, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Moving and darkly funny. . . Russo mines grace from his gritty hometown [and] the greatest charm of this memoir lies in the absences of self-pity and pretension in his take on his own history.” —Amy Finnerty, The Wall Street Journal
 
“Heartfelt and generous.” —Tricia Springstubb, Cleveland Plain Dealer
 
“One of the most honest, moving American memoirs in years... Russo's straightforward writing style is even more effective in Elsewhere [and his] intellectual and emotional honesty are remarkable.” —Michael Schaub, NPR.org
 
“Rich and layered... an honest book about a universal subject: those familial bonds that only get trickier with time.” —Kevin Canfield, Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Russo conjures the incredible bond between single mother and only child in a way that makes his story particularly powerful.” —Nicholas Mancusi, The Daily Beast
 
“Russo brings the same clear-eyed humanism that marks his fiction to this by turns funny and moving portrait of his mother and her never-ending quest to escape the provincial confines of their hometown.” —Joanne Wilkinson, Booklist
 
“An affecting yet never saccharine glimpse of the relationship among place, family and fiction.” —Kirkus

Library Journal
One can imagine the pleasures of reading a memoir by the Pulitzer Prize—winning author of Empire Falls, here recounts his upbringing in fading 1950s Gloversville, NY, much like the locales that make his fiction so memorable. But what should make this work truly arresting is his account of his mother, who wanted something better for herself and her son.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307959539
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/30/2012
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

RICHARD RUSSO is the author of seven novels and The Whore's Child, a collection of stories. In 2002 he received the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls, which like Nobody's Fool, was adapted to film.

Biography

Prizewinning author Richard Russo is regarded by many critics as the best writer about small-town America since Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis. "He doesn't over-sentimentalize [small towns]," said Maureen Corrigan, the book critic for NPR's "Fresh Air." Nor does he belittle the dreams and hardships of his working-class characters. "I come from a blue-collar family myself and I think he gets the class interactions; he just really nails class in his novels," said Corrigan.

When Russo left his own native small town in upstate New York, it was with hopes of becoming a college professor. But during his graduate studies, he began to have second thoughts about the academic life. While finishing up his doctorate, he took a creative writing class; and a new career path opened in front of him.

Russo's first novel set the tone for much of his later work. The story of an ailing industrial town and the interwoven lives of its inhabitants, Mohawk won critical praise for its witty, engaging style. In subsequent books, he has brought us a dazzling cast of characters, mostly working-class men and women who are struggling with the problems of everyday life (poor health, unemployment, mounting bills, failed marriages) in dilapidated, claustrophobic burghs that have -- like their denizens -- seen better days. In 2001, Russo received the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls, a brilliant, tragicomic set-piece that explores past and present relationships in a once-thriving Maine town whose textile mill and shirt factory have gone bust.

Russo's vision of America would be bleak, except for the wit and optimism he infuses into his stories. Even when his characters are less than lovable, they are funny, rueful, and unfailingly human. "There's a version of myself that I still see in a kind of alternative universe and it's some small town in upstate New York or someplace like that," Russo said in an interview. That ability to envision himself in the bars and diners of small-town America has served him well. "After the last sentence is read, the reader continues to see Russo's tender, messed-up people coming out of doorways, lurching through life," said the fiction writer Annie Proulx. "And keeps on seeing them because they are as real as we are."

Good To Know

In 1994, Russo's book Nobody's Fool was made into a movie starring Paul Newman and Bruce Willis. Newman also starred in the 1998 movie Twilight, for which Russo wrote the screenplay. Russo now divides his time between writing fiction and writing for the movies.

When he wrote his first books, Russo was employed full-time as a college teacher, and would stop at the local diner between classes to work on his novels. After the success of Nobody's Fool (the book and the movie), he was able to quit teaching -- but he still likes to write in spots such as the Camden Deli. It's "a less lonely way to write," he told USA Today. "I'm less self-conscious when it's not so quiet."

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    1. Hometown:
      Gloversville, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      July 15, 1949
    2. Place of Birth:
      Johnstown, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., University of Arizona, 1967; Ph.D., University of Arizona, 1979; M.F.A., University of Arizona, 1980

Read an Excerpt

Prologue

A few years ago, passing the sign on the New York State Thruway for the Central Leatherstocking Region, a friend of mine misread it as saying laughingstock and thought, That must be where Russo’s from. She was right. I’m from Gloversville, just a few miles north in the foothills of the Adirondacks, a place that’s easy to joke about unless you live there, as some of my family still do.

   The town wasn’t always a joke. In its heyday, nine out of ten dress gloves in the United States were manufactured there. By the end of the nineteenth century, craftsmen from all over Europe had flocked in, for decades producing gloves on a par with the finest made anywhere in the world. Back then glove-cutting was governed by a guild, and you typically apprenticed, as my maternal grandfather did, for two or three years. The primary tools of a trained glove-cutter’s trade were his eye, his experience of animal skins, and his imagination. It was my grandfather who gave me my first lessons in art—though I doubt he would’ve worded it like that—when he explained the challenge of making something truly fine and beautiful from an imperfect hide. After they’re tanned but before they go to the cutter, skins are rolled and brushed and finished to ensure smooth uniformity, but inevitably they retain some of nature’s imperfections. The true craftsman, he gave me to understand, works around these flaws or figures out how to incorporate them into the glove’s natural folds or stitching. Each skin posed problems whose resolution required creativity. The glove-cutter’s job wasn’t just to get as many gloves as possible out of a hide but to do so while minimizing its flaws.

   Leather had been tanned in Fulton County, using the bark of hemlock trees, since before the American Revolution. Gloversville and neighboring Johnstown were home not only to gloves but to all things leather: shoes and coats and handbags and upholstery. My paternal grandfather, from Salerno, Italy, having heard about this place where so many artisans had gathered, journeyed to upstate New York in hopes of making a living there as a shoemaker. From New York City he took the train north to Albany, then west as far as the Barge Canal hamlet of Fonda, where he followed the freight tracks north up to Johnstown, where I was born decades later. Did he have any real idea of where he was headed, or what his new life would be like? You tell me. Among the few material possessions he brought with him from the old country was an opera cape.

   Both men had wretched timing. My father’s father soon learned that Fulton County wasn’t Manhattan or even Salerno, and that few men in his new home would buy expensive custom-made shoes instead of cheaper machine-made ones, so he had little choice but to become a shoe repairman. And by the time my mother’s father arrived in Gloversville from Vermont, the real craft of glove-cutting was already under assault. By the end of World War I, many gloves were being “pattern cut.” (For a size 6 glove, a size 6 pattern was affixed to the skin and cut around with shears.) Once he returned from World War II, the process was largely mechanized by “clicker-cutting” machines that quickly stamped out presized gloves, requiring the operator only to position the tanned skin under the machine’s lethal blades and pull down on its mechanical arm. I was born in 1949, by which time there wasn’t much demand for handmade gloves or shoes, but both my grandfathers had long since made their big moves to Fulton County and staked their dubious claims. By then they had families, and so there they remained. It was also during the fi rst half of the twentieth century that chrome tanning, a chemical procedure that made leather more supple and water resistant, and dramatically sped up the whole process, became the industry standard, replacing traditional vegetable tanning and making tanneries even more hazardous, not just for workers but also for those who lived nearby and, especially, downstream. Speed, efficiency, and technology had trumped art and craft, not to mention public safety.

   That said, between 1890 and 1950 people in Gloversville made good money, some of them a lot of it. Drive along Kingsboro Avenue, which parallels Main Street, and have a gander at the fine old houses set back from the street and well apart from one another, and you’ll get a sense of the prosperity that at least the fortunate ones enjoyed until World War II. Even downtown Gloversville, which by the 1970s had become a Dresdenlike ruin, still shows signs of that wealth. The Andrew Carnegie Gloversville Free Library is as lovely as can be, and the old high school, which sits atop a gentle hill, bespeaks a community that believed both in itself and that good times would not be fleeting. On its sloping lawn stands a statue of Lucius Nathan Littauer, one of the richest men in the county, whose extended arm appears to point at the grand marble edifice of the nearby Eccentric Club, which refused him membership because he was a Jew. Down the street is the recently restored Glove Theatre, where I spent just about every Saturday afternoon of my adolescence. There was also a charming old hotel, the Kingsboro, in whose elegant dining room Monsignor Kreugler, whom I’d served as an altar boy at Sacred Heart Church, held weekly court after his last Sunday Mass. Once it was razed, visitors had to stay in nearby Johnstown, out on the arterial highway that was supposed to breathe new life into Gloversville but instead, all too predictably, allowed people to race by, without stopping or even slowing down, en route to Saratoga, Lake George, or Montreal.

   How quickly it all happened. In the Fifties, on a Saturday afternoon, the streets downtown would be gridlocked with cars honking hellos at pedestrians. The sidewalks were so jammed with shoppers that, as a boy trapped among taller adults, I had to depend on my mother, herself no giant, to navigate us from one store to the next or, more harrowingly, across Main Street. Often, when we finished what we called our weekly “errands,” my mother and I would stop in at Pedrick’s. Located next to city hall, it was a dark, cool place, the only establishment of my youth that was air-conditioned, with a long, thin wall whose service window allowed sodas and cocktails to be passed from the often raucous bar into the more respectable restaurant. Back then Pedrick’s was always mobbed, even in the middle of a Saturday afternoon. Mounted on the wall of each booth was a minijukebox whose movable mechanical pages were full of song listings. Selections made here—five for a quarter, if memory serves—were played on the real jukebox on the far wall. We always played a whole quarter’s worth while nursing sodas served so cold they made my teeth hurt. Sometimes, though, the music was drowned out by rowdy male laughter from the bar, where the wall-mounted television was tuned to a Yankees ball game, and if anybody hit a home run everyone in the restaurant knew it immediately. I remember listening intently to all the men’s voices, trying to pick out my father’s. He and my mother had separated when I was little, but he was still around town, and I always imagined him on the other side of that wall in Pedrick’s.

   I also suspected that my mother, if she hadn’t been saddled with me, would have preferred to be over there herself. She liked men, liked being among them, and on the restaurant side it was mostly women and kids and older people. Though I couldn’t have put it into words, I had the distinct impression that the wall separating respectability from fun was very thin indeed. There was another jukebox in the bar, and sometimes it got cranked up loud enough to compete with whatever was playing on ours, and then my mother would say it was time to go, as if she feared the wall itself might come crashing down. To her, music getting pumped up like that could only mean one thing: that people were dancing, middle of the afternoon or not, and if she’d been over there, she would’ve been as well. A good decade after the end of World War II, Gloversville was still in a party mode, and regular Saturday festivities routinely continued right up to last call and often beyond, the town’s prosperous citizens dancing and drinking at the Eccentric Club, the more middle-class folk in the blue-collar taverns along upper Main Street or, in summer, at the pavilion at nearby Caroga Lake, the poor (often the most recent immigrants with the lowest-paying tannery jobs) in the gin mills bordering South Main in the section of town referred to as “the Gut,” where arrests for drunkenness or indecency or belligerence were much more likely to be recorded in the local newspaper on Monday than comparable exploits at the Eccentric Club.

   By the time I graduated from high school in 1967, you could have strafed Main Street with an automatic weapon without endangering a soul. On Saturday afternoons the sidewalks were deserted, people in newly reduced circumstances shopping for bargains at the cheap, off-brand stores that had sprung up along the arterial. The marquee at the Glove Theatre bore the title of the last film to play there, though enough of the letters were missing that you couldn’t guess what it was. Jobless men emerged from the pool hall or one of the seedy gin mills that sold cheap draft beer and rotgut rye, blinking into the afternoon light and fl exing at the knees. Lighting up a smoke, they’d peer up Main Street in one direction, then down the other, as if wondering where the hell everybody went. By then the restaurant side of Pedrick’s had closed, but since I turned eighteen that summer, now of legal drinking age, the other side was no longer off-limits. Now, though, it was quiet as a library. The Yankees were still playing on the television, but Mantle and Maris and Yogi and Whitey Ford had all retired, and their glory days, like Gloversville’s, were over. The half-dozen grizzled, solitary drinkers rotated on their stools when the door opened, like the past might saunter in out of the bright glare trailing ten-dollar bills in its wake. Every now and then that summer of ’67, I’d poke my head into Pedrick’s to see if my father was among those drinking Utica Club drafts at the bar. But, like time itself, he, too, had moved on.

What happened? Lots of things. After World War II, about when men stopped wearing hats, women stopped wearing gloves. Jackie Kennedy did wear a pair at her husband’s inauguration, and that turned the clock back for a while, but the trend proved irreversible. More important, glove making started going overseas where labor was cheap. Gloversville went bust the way Mike Campbell declares his bankruptcy in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, “gradually and then suddenly.” The “giant sucking sound” of globalism arrived decades early and with a vengeance. My maternal grandfather, who, despite being a veteran of two world wars, had been branded a Communist from the pulpit of Sacred Heart Church for being a union man, saw it coming even before crappy Asian-made gloves showed up in the shops, where a few buttons could be sewn on and the gloves stamped MADE IN GLOVERSVILLE. Around Thanksgiving, the trade’s off-season, workers in the skin mills got laid off, and every year it took a little longer for them to be called back. Worse, they weren’t all rehired at once, which practice allowed the shop owners to remind their employees that things were different now. What mattered was moving inventory down the line, not quality. After all, Asians and Indians were doing what the local stiffs did for a quarter of the cost.

   My grandfather, who came home from the Pacific with malaria and soon afterward developed emphysema, was by then too sick to fight. He continued to work as always, refusing to cut corners and, as a result, making considerably less money than men for whom slapdash was good enough. The bosses could exploit him, give him the most flawed skins, and treat him like a robot instead of the craftsman he was, but he claimed the one thing they couldn’t order him to do was a bad job. But of course they didn’t need to. You only had to look at how his narrow, concave chest heaved as he struggled to draw oxygen into his failing lungs to know he wouldn’t be anybody’s problem much longer. His wife, who’d also survived the Depression, foresaw a diminished future. She began stocking the pantry with cans of wax beans and tuna fish earlier every year, aware that the layoffs would run even longer, and her husband, growing sicker by the day, would be among the last called back. Jesus on his best day could do no more with loaves and fishes than my grandmother did with a pound of bacon. Still, it was just a matter of time.

   None of which had much effect on me. As a boy I was happy as a clam in Gloversville. My mother and I shared a modest two-family house on Helwig Street with her parents. They lived in the two-bedroom, single-bath downstairs flat, my mother and I in the identically configured one above. My grandfather, who’d never before purchased anything he couldn’t pay for with cash out of his wallet, bought the house, I suspect, because he knew his daughter’s marriage was on the rocks and that she and I would need a place to live. Our block of Helwig Street was neighborly, with a corner grocery store situated diagonally across the street. My mother’s sister and her family lived around the corner on Sixth Avenue, which meant I grew up surrounded by cousins. In kindergarten and first grade, my grandmother walked me to school in the morning and was there to meet me in the afternoon, and in the summer we took walks to a lovely little park a few blocks away. On weekends it was often my grandfather who’d take my hand, and together we’d head downtown for a bag of “peatles,” his peculiar word for red-skinned peanuts, stopping on the way back to visit with friends sitting out on their porches. By the time I was old enough to get my first bike and explore beyond Helwig Street, I’d discovered the magic of baseball, and so, wooden bat over my shoulder, mitt dangling from my handle-bars, I disappeared with friends for whole mornings or afternoons or both. At my aunt’s there was a hoop over the garage, and during the long winters my cousin Greg and I kept the driveway shoveled meticulously so we could shoot baskets, even when it was so cold the net froze and you couldn’t dribble the ball. Come autumn I raked leaves, stealing this job from my grandfather, who loved to do it, though he didn’t always have sufficient breath. Sometimes he’d start the job, and I’d finish while he snuck a cigarette around back of the house where my grandmother couldn’t see him. Summers I mowed lawns, and winters I shoveled sidewalks. An American childhood, as lived in the Fifties by a lower-middle class that seems barely to exist anymore, in a town that seemed unexceptional then, and not, as it seems to me now, the canary in the mine shaft.

What follows in this memoir—I don’t know what else to call it—is 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. It’s about her character but also about where she grew up, fled from, and returned to again and again, about contradictions she couldn’t resolve and so passed on to me, knowing full well I’d worry them much like a dog worries a bone, gnawing, burying, unearthing, gnawing again, until there’s nothing left but sharp splinters and bleeding gums.

   I keep returning to that wall in Pedrick’s, the one separating the restaurant from the bar. How close she was to where she wanted to be. How flimsy that wall must’ve seemed, the music and laughter leaking through so easily. But then my mother was forever misjudging—not just distance and direction but the sturdiness of the barriers erected between her and what she so desperately desired. I should know. I was one of them.

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Introduction

A few years ago, passing the sign on the New York State Thruway for the Central Leatherstocking Region, a friend of mine misread it as saying laughingstock and thought, That must be where Russo's from. She was right. I'm from Gloversville, just a few miles north in the foothills of the Adirondacks, a place that's easy to joke about unless you live there, as some of my family still do.

The town wasn't always a joke. In its heyday, nine out of ten dress gloves in the United States were manufactured there. By the end of the nineteenth century, craftsmen from all over Europe had flocked in, for decades producing gloves on a par with the finest made anywhere in the world. Back then glove-cutting was governed by a guild, and you typically apprenticed, as my maternal grandfather did, for two or three years. The primary tools of a trained glove-cutter's trade were his eye, his experience of animal skins, and his imagination. It was my grandfather who gave me my first lessons in art—though I doubt he would've worded it like that—when he explained the challenge of making something truly fine and beautiful from an imperfect hide. After they're tanned but before they go to the cutter, skins are rolled and brushed and finished to ensure smooth uniformity, but inevitably they retain some of nature's imperfections. The true craftsman, he gave me to understand, works around these flaws or figures out how to incorporate them into the glove's natural folds or stitching. Each skin posed problems whose resolution required creativity. The glove-cutter's job wasn't just to get as many gloves as possible out of a hide but to do so while minimizing its flaws.

Leather had been tanned in Fulton County, using the bark of hemlock trees, since before the American Revolution. Gloversville and neighboring Johnstown were home not only to gloves but to all things leather: shoes and coats and handbags and upholstery. My paternal grandfather, from Salerno, Italy, having heard about this place where so many artisans had gathered, journeyed to upstate New York in hopes of making a living there as a shoemaker. From New York City he took the train north to Albany, then west as far as the Barge Canal hamlet of Fonda, where he followed the freight tracks north up to Johnstown, where I was born decades later. Did he have any real idea of where he was headed, or what his new life would be like? You tell me. Among the few material possessions he brought with him from the old country was an opera cape.

Both men had wretched timing. My father's father soon learned that Fulton County wasn't Manhattan or even Salerno, and that few men in his new home would buy expensive custom-made shoes instead of cheaper machine-made ones, so he had little choice but to become a shoe repairman. And by the time my mother's father arrived in Gloversville from Vermont, the real craft of glove-cutting was already under assault. By the end of World War I, many gloves were being "pattern cut." (For a size 6 glove, a size 6 pattern was affixed to the skin and cut around with shears.) Once he returned from World War II, the process was largely mechanized by "clicker-cutting" machines that quickly stamped out presized gloves, requiring the operator only to position the tanned skin under the machine's lethal blades and pull down on its mechanical arm.

I was born in 1949, by which time there wasn't much demand for handmadegloves or shoes, but both my grandfathers had long since made their big moves to Fulton County and staked their dubious claims. By then they had families, and so there they remained. It was also during the first half of the twentieth century that chrome tanning, a chemical procedure that made leather more supple and water resistant, and dramatically sped up the whole process, became the industry standard, replacing traditional vegetable tanning and making tanneries even more hazardous, not just for workers but also for those who lived nearby and, especially, downstream. Speed, efficiency, and technology had trumped art and craft, not to mention public safety.

That said, between 1890 and 1950 people in Gloversville made good money, some of them a lot of it. Drive along Kingsboro Avenue, which parallels Main Street, and have a gander at the fine old houses set back from the street and well apart from one another, and you'll get a sense of the prosperity that at least the fortunate ones enjoyed until World War II. Even downtown Gloversville, which by the 1970s had become a Dresdenlike ruin, still shows signs of that wealth. The Andrew Carnegie Gloversville Free Library is as lovely as can be, and the old high school, which sits atop a gentle hill, bespeaks a community that believed both in itself and that good times would not be fleeting. On its sloping lawn stands a statue of Lucius Nathan Littauer, one of the richest men in the county, whose extended arm appears to point at the grand marble edifice of the nearby Eccentric Club, which refused him membership because he was a Jew. Down the street is the recently restored Glove Theatre, where I spent just about every Saturday afternoon of my adolescence. There was also a charming old hotel, the Kingsboro, in whose elegant dining room Monsignor Kreugler, whom I'd served as an altar boy at Sacred Heart Church, held weekly court after his last Sunday Mass. Once it was razed, visitors had to stay in nearby Johnstown, out on the arterial highway that was supposed to breathe new life into Gloversville but instead, all too predictably, allowed people to race by, without stopping or even slowing down, en route to Saratoga, Lake George, or Montreal.

How quickly it all happened. In the Fifties, on a Saturday afternoon, the streets downtown would be gridlocked with cars honking hellos at pedestrians. The sidewalks were so jammed with shoppers that, as a boy trapped among taller adults, I had to depend on my mother, herself no giant, to navigate us from one store to the next or, more harrowingly, across Main Street. Often, when we finished what we called our weekly "errands," my mother and I would stop in at Pedrick's. Located next to city hall, it was a dark, cool place, the only establishment of my youth that was air-conditioned, with a long, thin wall whose service window allowed sodas and cocktails to be passed from the often raucous bar into the more respectable restaurant. Back then Pedrick's was always mobbed, even in the middle of a Saturday afternoon. Mounted on the wall of each booth was a minijukebox whose movable mechanical pages were full of song listings. Selections made here—five for a quarter, if memory serves—were played on the real jukebox on the far wall. We always played a whole quarter's worth while nursing sodas served so cold they made my teeth hurt. Sometimes, though, the music was drowned out by rowdy male laughter from the bar, where the wall-mounted television was tuned to a Yankees ball game, and if anybody hit a home run everyone in the restaurant knew it immediately. I remember listening intently to all the men's voices, trying to pick out my father's. He and my mother had separated when I was little, but he was still around town, and I always imagined him on the other side of that wall in Pedrick's.

I also suspected that my mother, if she hadn't been saddled with me, would have preferred to be over there herself. She liked men, liked being among them, and on the restaurant side it was mostly women and kids and older people. Though I couldn't have put it into words, I had the distinct impression that the wall separating respectability from fun was very thin indeed. There was another jukebox in the bar, and sometimes it got cranked up loud enough to compete with whatever was playing on ours, and then my mother would say it was time to go, as if she feared the wall itself might come crashing down. To her, music getting pumped up like that could only mean one thing: that people were dancing, middle of the afternoon or not, and if she'd been over there, she would've been as well. A good decade after the end of World War II, Gloversville was still in a party mode, and regular Saturday festivities routinely continued right up to last call and often beyond, the town's prosperous citizens dancing and drinking at the Eccentric Club, the more middle-class folk in the blue-collar taverns along upper Main Street or, in summer, at the pavilion at nearby Caroga Lake, the poor (often the most recent immigrants with the lowest-paying tannery jobs) in the gin mills bordering South Main in the section of town referred to as "the Gut," where arrests for drunkenness or indecency or belligerence were much more likely to be recorded in the local newspaper on Monday than comparable exploits at the Eccentric Club.

By the time I graduated from high school in 1967, you could have strafed Main Street with an automatic weapon without endangering a soul. On Saturday afternoons the sidewalks were deserted, people in newly reduced circumstances shopping for bargains at the cheap, off-brand stores that had sprung up along the arterial. The marquee at the Glove Theatre bore the title of the last film to play there, though enough of the letters were missing that you couldn't guess what it was. Jobless men emerged from the pool hall or one of the seedy gin mills that sold cheap draft beer and rotgut rye, blinking into the afternoon light and flexing at the knees. Lighting up a smoke, they'd peer up Main Street in one direction, then down the other, as if wondering where the hell everybody went. By then the restaurant side of Pedrick's had closed, but since I turned eighteen that summer, now of legal drinking age, the other side was no longer off-limits. Now, though, it was quiet as a library. The Yankees were still playing on the television, but Mantle and Maris and Yogi and Whitey Ford had all retired, and their glory days, like Gloversville's, were over. The half-dozen grizzled, solitary drinkers rotated on their stools when the door opened, like the past might saunter in out of the bright glare trailing ten-dollar bills in its wake. Every now and then that summer of '67, I'd poke my head into Pedrick's to see if my father was among those drinking Utica Club drafts at the bar. But, like time itself, he, too, had moved on...what happened? Lots of things. After World War II, about when men stopped wearing hats, women stopped wearing gloves. Jackie Kennedy did wear a pair at her husband's inauguration, and that turned the clock back for a while, but the trend proved irreversible. More important, glove making started going overseas where labor was cheap. Gloversville went bust the way Mike Campbell declares his bankruptcy in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, "gradually and then suddenly." The "giant sucking sound" of globalism arrived decades early and with a vengeance. My maternal grandfather, who, despite being a veteran of two world wars, had been branded a Communist from the pulpit of Sacred Heart Church for being a union man, saw it coming even before crappy Asian-made gloves showed up in the shops, where a few buttons could be sewn on and the gloves stamped made in gloversville. Around Thanksgiving, the trade's off-season, workers in the skin mills got laid off, and every year it took a little longer for them to be called back. Worse, they weren't all rehired at once, which practice allowed the shop owners to remind their employees that things were different now. What mattered was moving inventory down the line, not quality. After all, Asians and Indians were doing what the local stiffs did for a quarter of the cost.

My grandfather, who came home from the Pacific with malaria and soon afterward developed emphysema, was by then too sick to fight. He continued to work as always, refusing to cut corners and, as a result, making considerably less money than men for whom slapdash was good enough. The bosses could exploit him, give him the most flawed skins, and treat him like a robot instead of the craftsman he was, but he claimed the one thing they couldn't order him to do was a bad job. But of course they didn't need to. You only had to look at how his narrow, concave chest heaved as he struggled to draw oxygen into his failing lungs to know he wouldn't be anybody's problem much longer. His wife, who'd also survived the Depression, foresaw a diminished future. She began stocking the pantry with cans of wax beans and tuna fish earlier every year, aware that the layoffs would run even longer, and her husband, growing sicker by the day, would be among the last called back. Jesus on his best day could do no more with loaves and fishes than my grandmother did with a pound of bacon. Still, it was just a matter of time.

None of which had much effect on me. As a boy I was happy as a clam in Gloversville. My mother and I shared a modest two-family house on Helwig Street with her parents. They lived in the two-bedroom, single-bath downstairs flat, my mother and I in the identically configured one above. My grandfather, who'd never before purchased anything he couldn't pay for with cash out of his wallet, bought the house, I suspect, because he knew his daughter's marriage was on the rocks and that she and I would need a place to live. Our block of Helwig Street was neighborly, with a corner grocery store situated diagonally across the street. My mother's sister and her family lived around the corner on Sixth Avenue, which meant I grew up surrounded by cousins. In kindergarten and first grade, my grandmother walked me to school in the morning and was there to meet me in the afternoon, and in the summer we took walks to a lovely little park a few blocks away. On weekends it was often my grandfather who'd take my hand, and together we'd head downtown for a bag of "peatles," his peculiar word for red-skinned peanuts, stopping on the way back to visit with friends sitting out on their porches. By the time I was old enough to get my first bike and explore beyond Helwig Street, I'd discovered the magic of baseball, and so, wooden bat over my shoulder, mitt dangling from my handle-bars, I disappeared with friends for whole mornings or afternoons or both. At my aunt's there was a hoop over the garage, and during the long winters my cousin Greg and I kept the driveway shoveled meticulously so we could shoot baskets, even when it was so cold the net froze and you couldn't dribble the ball. Come autumn I raked leaves, stealing this job from my grandfather, who loved to do it, though he didn't always have sufficient breath. Sometimes he'd start the job, and I'd finish while he snuck a cigarette around back of the house where my grandmother couldn't see him. Summers I mowed lawns, and winters I shoveled sidewalks. An American childhood, as lived in the Fifties by a lower-middle class that seems barely to exist anymore, in a town that seemed unexceptional then, and not, as it seems to me now, the canary in the mine shaft.

What follows in this memoir—I don't know what else to call it—is 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. It's about her character but also about where she grew up, fled from, and returned to again and again, about contradictions she couldn't resolve and so passed on to me, knowing full well I'd worry them much like a dog worries a bone, gnawing, burying, unearthing, gnawing again, until there's nothing left but sharp splinters and bleeding gums.

I keep returning to that wall in Pedrick's, the one separating the restaurant from the bar. How close she was to where she wanted to be. How flimsy that wall must've seemed, the music and laughter leaking through so easily. But then my mother was forever misjudging—not just distance and direction but the sturdiness of the barriers erected between her and what she so desperately desired. I should know. I was one of them.

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Reading Group Guide

1. In the Preface, Russo writes that “What follows in this memoir—I don’t know what else to call it—is a story of intersections: of place and time, or private and public, of linked destinies and flawed devotion” [p. 12]. In what ways do place and time, private and public, linked destinies and flawed devotion intersect in the book? Why does Russo hesitate to call it a memoir? In what sense is it more than a memoir?

2. As he reads the book about OCD, Russo writes: “As dispiriting as it was to recognize my mother on virtually every page...it was even more painful to recognize myself as her principal enabler. Because, like alcoholics and other addicts, obsessives can’t do it on their own” [p. 225]. Is Russo right to take some responsibility for his mother’s mental turmoil? In what ways does he enable her? Could he have responded differently?

3. How might Jean’s life have been different if she had been properly diagnosed and treated for OCD?

4. Of becoming a writer, Russo reflects that, “Somehow, without ever intending to, I’d discovered how to turn obsession and what my grandmother used to call sheer cussedness...to my advantage. How and by what mechanism? Dumb luck? Grace? I honestly have no idea. Call it whatever you want—except virtue” [p. 166]. How can Russo’s ability to harness his obsessions be explained? Why does he refuse to call it “virtue”? How is it that obsessiveness can be so destructive for one person and so fruitful for another?

5. What powerful mixture of feelings does Russo experience when his father tells him bluntly that his mother is crazy? What are the most challenging aspects her behavior?   What does Russo see as the source of her anxieties and panic attacks?

6. In what ways are Rick’s challenges in dealing with an aging parent that universal? In what ways are they specific?

7. Near the end of the book, Russo writes that “novelists, if they know anything, should know how important stories are, that narratives often provide the key to things that run deeper in us, in our basic humanity, than can be diagnosed by even the most skilled physician. Given how often I’d heard it, I should have recognized the importance and meaning of my mother’s Easter story, the one where she and her sister got new dresses and my grandmother did not” [p. 241]. What is the importance and meaning of his mother’s Easter story? Why and in what ways are stories crucial for understanding—and even shaping—our lives?

8. How has the story that Russo tells in Elsewhere helped him arrive at a greater understanding of his mother and their own shared narrative? What does he know at the end that he didn’t know at the beginning?

9. Why does Russo attribute his becoming a writer to his mother’s influence? How did she inspire him to write?

10. In what ways does Elsewhere explore the difficulties that virtually everyone must face in dealing with an aging parent? What aspects of the memoir are unique to Russo’s own situation?

11. In the Acknowledgements, Russo says: “To my mother I owe, well, just about everything, and to some readers these pages may seem a strange way to repay such an enormous debt” [p. 246]. Why does Russo feel such gratitude toward his mother despite the many challenges of taking care of her? Does the book seem a strange way to repay the debt?

12. Elsewhere is not only about Russo and his mother but also about the town of Gloversville where Russo grew up. In what ways does the trajectory of Gloversville, from thriving manufacturing town to impoverished post-industrial backwater, mirror what’s happened in much of America over the past seventy years? Why do the tanneries and related glove-making businesses move their operations out of the U.S.? How does this affect Gloversville? In what ways did those companies, exploit and endanger both their workers and the health of the town itself? Are the tanneries guilty of what Russo calls “corporate murder” and “corporate rape” [p. 231]?

13. How does this nonfiction treatment of his hometown differ from the fictional versions of Gloversville Russo has written about in his novels? What does this treatment add to his fictional portraits of the house and town that, he says, would “nourish [his] creative life for more than three decades”? [p. 239]

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 23 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 23 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 10, 2012

    Probably more than we wanted to know...

    This combination biography/autobiography of Russo's growing up with and eventually becoming the long-term caretaker of his dysfunctional mother is troublesome in its exposition of details that make the reader uncomfortable at best.
    Russo gives his mother a multitude of passes on things she did that affected his life --- e.g. their lack of money because she felt that her job at General Electric required her to dress stylishly (read expensively)even as they lived with her parents in a two-flat.
    Also, Russo's wife receives very little coverage but the woman should be nominated for sainthood for sticking through all the years. She must really love him.
    I recall my own mother, who suffered from a tyrannical German mother-in-law for whom nothing was ever good enough. My father bought his mother a house down the block from ours and went up every night for dinner with her. I recall my mother telling me one time that if "GG" ever moved in, that would be her final straw. Eventually she did and it wasn't but I cannot believe that Russo's wife didn't, at some point, give him the ultimatum: "your mother or me!"
    I love Russo's other stuff so much that I guess I can forgive him for this one. Baldacci did a horrible romance novel last year... it happens.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2012

    An interesting look at the relationship between a boy/young man/man and his mother.

    I love Russo--however, that being said, I found this book became a bit tiresome, a bit too long, as its only true subject seems to be Russo's relationship with his mentally-impaired mother. One becomes a bit impatient as he allows his mother continually to dictate the details of his life--where he (and she) should live; his work and even his marriage, to his VERY long-suffering wife. One is almost relieved when his mother passes away, which is a terrible thing to feel; and since it's the end of the book, I cannot help but wonder how he has recovered from a life spent exclusively, it seems, at the beck and call of others--mostly his mother, but he seems to put the well-being of everyone in his family ahead of his own.
    I don't think I would recommend this book, unless it was to someone in a similar predicament; go back and read somme of his marvelous fiction, such as "Empire Falls" or "Bridge of Sighs".

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 3, 2012

    Fans of Russo's novels will want to know more about him from Elsewhere!

    This memoir by my favorite living novelist is actually more a memoir of his dysfunctional mother than himself. He waits a long time into the book to reveal some of himself, but this only because in life he must never have had therapy, thus he discovered late how truly disturbed his mother was. I suspect that all of his novels were therapy of a kind for him, and for that I am thankful to him, as his novels are just wonderful. He is a great observer of characters, and he is an author who seems to find something likable in each and every character. Yet I suspect that the flip side of this power of observation of others is that he has done less really deep observation of himself. Much like reading books, and then writing books, became and escape for him, observing his mother pulled him away from attending to his own inner voice more. In the beginning of this book I was very bothered by how blind Richard seemed to be to his mother’s disturbance, and how he was used by her to try to cover and avoid more self-examination into her child-like self. When an adult daughter of the author shows OCD symptoms, he can finally make the connection to his mother’s bizarre behavior over a lifetime, but he apparently does not know that OCD was only one of her issues. Her main problem was a personality disorder that kept her childlike and able to avoid most adult responsibilities, either by blaming her problems on her “nerves,” or by blaming everyone else in her life. Much like my more disturbed mother! However, the following revealing paragraph toward the end of the book shows how Richard had it worse than I did, in that I, at least, had a father and a brother to buffer the insanity. Richard did not.
    “One of the sadder truths of childhood is that children, lacking the necessary experience by which to gauge, are unlikely to know if something is abnormal or unnatural unless an adult tells them. Worse, once anything of the sort has been established as normal, it will likely be perceived as such well into adulthood, and this is particularly true for the only child, who has no one to compare notes with.”
    Richard realizes in very late age that he had “enabled” his mother’s childlike behavior his whole life, whereas I started to realize consciously, around age 5, that everyone who enabled my mother would be used up by her and then tossed away not needed. Therefore I was eventually able to completely stop all enabling behavior by about age 14. For much of this book I felt agitated by Richard not seeing all the ways his mother used him for her own needs, but by the end of the book I was again grateful to him for capturing, for describing so well a milder version of the dysfunction that was much worse in my own household. Even reading Richard’s novels, I always feel like he and I would have been fast friends, had we met during any part of our lives; from childhood through later age. I will never meet him, never have beer with him, and oddly I feel a bit sad about that every time I finish one of his books.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 29, 2014

    A Difficult Memoir--more about the mother than the man-- I read

    A Difficult Memoir--more about the mother than the man--
    I read this memoir with great interest, devouring it quickly--hence the three  stars--but, much as I would have liked to, I could not give it more as I was left feeling frustrated  that Russo's memoir was more about his mother than anything else. Obviously, his mother's mental illness and subsequent demands on his life dictated that the story would need to center on her, but I would have liked to get a better picture about how this impacted his own personal relationships, most especially with his wife, but his children too, and, really any friendships or other relationships that he may have established or wished to establish that might take up his time. Perhaps Mrs. Russo did not want to be highlighted in the story, but surely this had to take a huge toll on their relationship. He mentioned the fact that his work as a novelist required he travel to promote his books on tours. It is hard not to believe that such trips would not create tremendous problems with his mother, but his travels for work only get a footnote. This was a good story, a moving one, and one that gives a lot of insight into obsessive compulsive disorder left unchecked, but it barely touched on the collateral damage such illnesses have on their extended families. Still, reading it DID make me go back to the library to pick up a few of Russo's other works. 

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 16, 2014

    If you want to read about a Bipolar woman, this is probably a go

    If you want to read about a Bipolar woman, this is probably a good book for you. Honestly, I've enjoyed many of Russo's other books, but not this one.

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  • Posted February 21, 2014

    Interesting memoir

    I don't believe I've ever read about such an interesting character. Truth, of course, is always stranger than fiction. Mr. Russo's mother defies description.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 9, 2013

    Most of this book is worth reading.

    It was interesting to read about the relationship between his mother and himself, but than sadly he had to add his political views into the story. In light of today's problems with the NSA spying, IRS targeting, the Libya murders, the Fast and Furious mess, take over of American health care system, and the poor international relations plans and weak organization about Syria - it was creepy reading political thoughts coming from an unsable woman and it not being questioned. I will continue to read Russo but I wish I could give this book 5 stars instead of 4.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 7, 2013

    Highly Recommended

    I loved this book. I love the author's writing style (and plan to get more of the books he's written), and I just wanted to keep reading it. It just drew you in. And the end result of finding out what may have truly been his Mom's illness was very eye-opening.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 30, 2012

    Sorry to say,it sucked.

    The Headline (above) says it all.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted August 31, 2014

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