Writer Richard Russo recalls his mother and the other forces that shaped him while growing up in upstate New York in the 1950s and 1960s in his 2012 release, "Elsewhere," published by Knopf.
Richard Russo is one of my favorite writers. With his depiction of small town America and blue collar people just struggling to get through the daily task of living, his novels such as "Empire Falls" and "Nobody's Fool" strike a chord with this reader.
His recent memoir, "Elsewhere," mines some of this same ground, a book as much about his mother as the Pulitzer Prize Award-winning novelist.
Russo's mother was a flawed character - like many of the people from his fiction. Of course, the difference is that Jean Russo is not of the imagination but a true life character that Russo both celebrates and exposes for all her warts.
His mother was smart, ambitious, but ultimately the victim of her own circumstances.
A single mother raising her son in upstate New York while holding onto a decent job was no picnic for a woman in the 1950s, but Jean Russo had an additional cross to bear. Cursed with a nervous condition, and what the author later felt was an undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder, he was as much his mother's caretaker as she was to him.
Jean Russo has big dreams for young Richard and is determined that he does not end up at the local factory, as is the fate of so many males in Gloversville, N.Y., a backwater town buried in snow much of the year and perhaps mired in memories of its once somewhat prosperous past. That alone earns his mother a glowing endorsement from the author.
When it's time for Richard to go off to college across the country in Arizona, his mother accompanies him. She leaves behind the solid, decent paying job with General Electric under the misguided notion that she can find an equally good position with the same company in the sun-baked West.
But her shortsightedness costs her, and Richard must pick up the pieces - a scenario that plays out repeatedly in their lives.
Russo's memoir is both funny and unsparing in its depiction of his mother, a once capable, optimistic woman, who slips further and further into her own mental and emotional problems that leave her unable to really cope with life.
Her problems seem to fuel in Richard a determination that he make something of himself. If anything he wants to avoid the pitfalls of his mother and also his father, a compulsive gambler and mostly absentee parent who left the family when he was just a boy.
I would have loved to have learned more about the dad, who seems in many ways to be a model for some of Russo's male characters from his novels: Sully of "Nobody's Fool," but particularly, Sam Hall, the ne-er-do-well, roguish small town gambler in "The Risk Pool."
At times, Russo's descriptions of his mother are a bit wearying and repetitious, and perhaps this memoir could have been shortened by a few dozen pages.
At any rate, writing the book was no doubt for Russo, a bit of a catharsis, a way for him to understand how he evolved into the person and writer he became.