Elsewhere: A Memoir

Richard Russo’s many novels, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning Empire Falls, have often explored troubled family relationships against the backdrop of struggling industrial towns. In Elsewhere, his new memoir, Russo reveals the real-life inspiration for his hard-luck fiction, chronicling his early childhood in a hollowed-out New York community and his complicated attempts to escape.

The star of Elsewhere is Russo’s mother, Jean, who chafes under the limits of life in Gloversville, an upstate company town named in honor of its leather goods industry. As Russo grows up, many of Gloversville’s jobs migrate overseas, with devastating results. “By the time I graduated high school in 1967, you could have strafed Main Street with an automatic weapon without endangering a soul,” Russo recalls. Gloversville’s dimmed promise makes Jean restless, and she finds her prospects narrowed even further as she copes with the absence of her husband, a chronic gambler with a taste for drink who leaves Jean to raise the young Richard by herself.

Jean and Richard move in with her parents, and she works at the local GE plant, priding herself on her independence as a single mother. But Jean’s reliance on her mother and father to help raise Richard calls her ostensible self-sufficiency into question. When Richard departs for college in Arizona, Jean decides to leave with him, sure of a brighter destiny out west.

Hundreds of miles from Gloversville, Richard quickly realizes that his mother’s anxiety flows from deeper sources than her hardscrabble origins. Touched by a complex mix of emotional and mental problems, including what Richard later concludes is obsessive-compulsive disorder, Jean proves a disaster in her personal and professional life, obligating Richard to bring her along as he marries and migrates around the country in pursuit of an academic and literary career. Jean also periodically retreats to Gloversville, alternately loving it as a familiar refuge, then loathing it as a “cage” from which she begs for liberation.

The monotonous burden of Jean’s behavior becomes the principal theme of Elsewhere, as Russo’s mother oscillates between grandiose plans for her future and crashing defeats, forcing her family to pick up the pieces. Russo renders the tedium of the cycle with such a detailed documentary eye that Jean frequently wearies us as much she does her son. Elsewhere isn’t often a fun read, despite being promoted by its publisher as “hilarious.” There’s occasional comedy here, as when an addle-brained Jean flattens a giant cactus while learning to drive, but readers shouldn’t expect a laugh riot in the vein of Straight Man, Russo’s farcical 1997 send-up of academe.

Russo’s gentle ribbing of his late mother underscores the general restraint of Elsewhere. Rather than recruiting his narrative to settle scores, Russo points his sharpest barbs at himself, wondering aloud how many of his mother’s foibles have become his own. He confesses to a similar tendency toward obsession, a weakness that he’s channeled into a strength by directing it toward his writing. And Russo implies, without quite saying so, that Jean’s elastic view of reality might have offered a useful model for a son who would grow up to write fiction.

Russo’s admirers will find in Elsewhere further evidence of the writer’s ability to render a world and a time with economy, grace, and precision. Here, he describes life in Gloversville after its heyday: “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.”

As Elsewhere concludes, Russo finds an uneasy peace with his mother and his hometown, accommodating a past that’s been the wellspring of his stories. That leads him to the idea that runs through so many of his novels — “the terrible possibility that what nourishes us in this life might be the very thing that steals this life away from us.”