Updated: December 12, 2012 6:01AM
Richard Russo’s “Elsewhere” is, as its subtitle states, a memoir, but, he says in his prologue, “It’s more my mother’s story than mine.” Actually, it is the story of his (and his wife Barbara’s) 35-year struggle to care for a woman who with every passing year became ever more impossible to deal with.
Russo, 63, is the critically acclaimed, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of seven novels and a book of short stories. Much of his fiction deals with the economic decline of small industrial cities like Gloversville in northern New York where he grew up, the only child of working-class parents who separated when he was little.
He lived with his mother, Jean, a good-looking, intelligent, hard-working woman, on the second floor of his maternal grandparents’ house. There was nothing she valued more than independence, Russo says, but — in just one of many ways she fooled herself (and for a long time him) — it was an independence subsidized by others, as the shared housing indicates.
“Elsewhere: A Memoir” (Knopf, $25.95) is the chronicle of a curious mother-son bond, cemented on her side by love and need and on his by love, duty and guilt. The intensity of the bond was stronger on her side, so much so that when Russo went off to the University of Arizona in Tucson, Jean went along, settling in Phoenix.
Thing is, she didn’t settle, even though she told Russo and everyone else this was going to be the start to a bold new life for her. She married again, moved to California, the marriage failed, and she returned to Gloversville.
But soon it was back to Tucson again to live with Russo and his new bride in a 14-foot-wide trailer. And then back to Gloversville again.
Such would be the pattern of her life for the next 30-plus years. That apparently is the significance of his title, “Elsewhere.” When she was here, she wanted to be there, and when she got there, she wanted to be here.
Jean pretty much remained with her son’s family the rest of her life, moving with them from Illinois to Maine, gradually getting sicker physically and mentally. The search for “elsewhere” continued, for in each place she constantly shifted apartments, each one turning out to be unsatisfactory.
Why? The author’s extended family spoke of Jean’s “condition,” something to do with “nerves.” Russo’s father startled him the summer he was 21 by declaring, “You do know your mother’s nuts, right?”
No, he did not know that, but after a surge of anger there was a surge of relief, because he realized it was true and that subconsciously he had long suspected it himself. How many panic attacks and “meltdowns” had he witnessed and not known how to account for?
Russo’s description of his father, by the way, is one of several giveaways to autobiographical elements in his fiction. He bears resemblance to Sam Hall, the father of a boy in “The Risk Pool,” just as traces of the weddings of Russo’s two daughters can be found in those of two daughters in “That Old Cape Magic.”
The second half of the book, then, is an attempt to puzzle out just what it was between mother and son and what was wrong with her. He believes that in some ways he is like her, that he bears “the same genetic character traits.” He had turned “obsession … and sheer cussedness” to his own advantage. “The same qualities that over a lifetime had contracted my mother’s world had somehow expanded mine.”
Jean, he says, had no sense for logic, sequencing, prioritizing. She liked things to be settled, but she could never settle for anything. In effect, she spent her entire life trying to pound square pegs into round holes.
He concludes finally, with the help of others, that she was obsessive-compulsive. He feels bad because he unwittingly abetted her in this behavior, paradoxically, by acceding to its impossible demands, and later gave up on her though she “never, ever, gave up on me.”
It is perhaps a testimony to Russo and his wife that their marriage survived three-plus decades of such strain and that under it he was able to produce eight outstanding works of fiction. And now, out of it, this equally outstanding memoir.
Roger K. Miller is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer.