“The writer’s only responsibility is to his art,” William Faulkner once remarked, and the phrase became good as law. A writer, he said, was “driven by demons.” If he was any good, it was because he was ruthless, willing to sacrifice whatever it took to tell his story. Forget pride, honor, decency: If a writer had to rob his mother, he wouldn’t hesitate. Literature was a maw that had to be fed.
Indeed, robbing mothers is the least of it. The best writers have been known to rob fathers and forefathers, too; sisters, cousins and aunts. They’ll burgle their own children if they have to. If there’s a novelist or memoirist in your family, you know what I mean. You’re in for identity theft. You’re taking your chances.
Even so, 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, “Elsewhere.” In the first nonfiction effort of his career, he tells of the mother Faulkner said he was free to rob: the fragile and all-too-human woman who raised him.
Over the course of seven good novels and a slew of good stories, Russo has proven that he knows something about the human condition. His books — “Nobody’s Fool,” “Bridge of Sighs,” “That Old Cape Magic” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Empire Falls,” to name a few — are richly drawn dramas, pulsing with hearts and minds, set in gritty, blue-collar, upstate New York. As Yoknapatawpha is to Faulkner, the town of Gloversville is to Russo. It is a raggedy, dingy place where leather was worked until the trade moved on, where the out-of-work wallow in the might-have-been, victims of a dread stagnation.
This is the place to which Russo returns, not as he has, repeatedly and obsessively, in fictional lives but to a Gloversville that he knows too well: the polestar to which his grandfather came; the thriving hub in which 90 percent of America’s dress gloves were made; the tanneries, factories, stitching rooms that supported a humming industry, before it all went away and “you could have strafed Main Street with an automatic weapon without endangering a soul.”
By the end of World War II, few men wore hats, few women wore gloves, and several years later, when Jean Russo ended up a strapped single mother in what should have been a boom time, the town went bust the way a Hemingway character declares bankruptcy: “gradually and then suddenly.”
This is a memoir of a different kind, a sedimentary, generational tale that tells “more my mother’s story than mine.” Russo beautifully conjures the world in which his spirited, pretty mother moved: her job at the General Electric headquarters in Schenectady; her bitter divorce from Russo’s good-looking, ne’er-do-well father; her passionate insistence on total independence; her utter dependence on everyone she knew. The book ends up being about where his mother “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.”
As years went by, Mrs. Russo told her only son that he was her rock, that together the two of them were one; and, indeed, when he managed to get himself into college in Arizona, she quit her job and tagged along with him. Having been an only child in the insular world of Gloversville, he didn’t know how strange that was. He drove her across the country in a dilapidated car, set her up in an apartment in Phoenix, and proceeded to bury himself in scholarly pursuits, minding her all the while — even bringing her to live in a modest trailer with his new bride when he was a struggling graduate student.
Keeping mum was not an easy business. At the age of 40, she had to be taught to drive. She was prone to panic attacks, kept daffy to-do lists, became wild at the slightest sign of deviation from her routine. But Russo had learned to smooth feathers at every turn. He worried about her jobs, went hunting for places for her to live, catered to her every whim. He knew his mother suffered from a nervous condition, but as far as he was concerned, he owed her everything. He was dutiful, guilt-ridden, self-abnegating. And his wife and daughters learned to play along.
Not that his mother was without her charms. She could talk a stranger into taking her where she needed to go. She drew pity when she lamented being locked in “a cage.” She was lovely, well-dressed, filled with promise. But she was also demanding and manipulative, a virago when she didn’t get her way. “Whoever said beggars can’t be choosers,” Russo’s grandfather would tell him, “never met your mother.”
Yet Russo, as trapped in a cycle of repetitive behavior as the mother to whom he was bound, kept answering her demands, feeding the endless maw of obligation. It is not until the last pages of “Elsewhere” that we understand his mother’s illness: obsessive-compulsive disorder. And it falls to Russo’s daughter to explain it.
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. For all the Faulknerian business about ruthless writers grabbing stories however they can, we know that this one has been a penitence. We know from Russo’s work that he is a measured man; that it must have been painful to write all this down, worse to put it into the hands of a reader who might misunderstand it. Look hard enough and you’ll see a glimpse of the artist born, the woman distilled to a quivering flame, the ruined town stirring to imaginary life, the deficit turned into literary gain.
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.
Arana, writer-at-large for The Post, is the author of the memoir “American Chica” as well as a consultant for the Library of Congress.
By Richard Russo
Knopf. 246 pp. $25.95