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.”