Saturday, November 10, 2012

"Elsewhere: A Memoir," by Richard Russo

Richard Russo has written a reflective, thoughtful, self-aware memoir ("Elsewhere," Knopf, 2012) about his long, loving, but fraught relationship with his deeply troubled mother. From his childhood she made sure the two of them were a unit, a team, with a special relationship. His father was a presence in his childhood, but not a regular or reliable one, partly because of his gambling problem, and partly because he early on decided that his wife, then ex-wife, was "nuts." The author and his mother lived with his maternal grandparents in the small upstate New York town of Gloversville for a good part of his childhood, and although Russo needed to get away from that town, he still feels formed by it. Russo always tried to be a good son, and his mother depended on him inordinately until her death in her 80s, in 2007. This often made life difficult for Russo and his own family; Russo's wife Barbara seems to have been a saint to deal with all this entailed. But the book is not an extended complaint; Russo tells the story compassionately, and gives credit to his mother for being, when she was young, a strong and independent woman, and for being the one who inspired him as a reader and a writer. He also examines himself to see if he did the right things in the way he treated her; was he an enabler? Finally, after his mother's death, Russo realizes -- spoiler alert -- that his mother probably had OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). Although the condition was not a well-known one until fairly recently, he feels sad that he didn't realize she had a clinical mental illness. He is hard on himself, yet also philosophical. It seems to me as a reader that he (and his wife) did much more for his mother than most sons could or would have done, letting her needs and wants and psychological issues determine many parts of his and his family's life for nearly half a century (she generally moved with the family every time they moved to a new location, and although she had her own apartments, Russo would find those apartments for her, visit her almost daily,and take care of all her shopping, financial business, doctors' visits, and other needs). There is another unhappy turn of the story toward the end of the book (after the author's mother's death), but thankfully one that can be addressed and managed. For some time I have been a big fan of Russo's wonderful novels, such as "Empire Falls," "Bridge of Sighs," "Straight Man," and "That Old Cape Magic." These novels are "old-fashioned" in the sense that they are not experimental, and they have interesting, moving plots and compelling, believable characters. They often deal with working class characters and families, or characters who have come from the working class, even if they are now middle class. Aside from admiring his great gifts as a writer, I have always gotten a sense that Richard Russo is a good man; the word "decent" comes to mind. This memoir reinforces that impression. If you haven't read the Pulitzer Prize-winning Russo's novels, I strongly recommend them.

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