Sick and Tired
I discovered Richard Russo when I picked up Empire Falls. I was just out of college, and my roommate had pushed Russo on me. Empire Falls was delicious—sprawling, dramatic, sometimes shocking. Though some portions didn’t ring true, the overall effort delighted me.
Then, by accident, this summer, I stumbled upon a taped reading Russo had given at a college (sponsored by Lesley University, 8 March 2013). Russo spoke alongside an old writing teacher of mine, Amy Bloom, and much of what he said struck me as interesting and true. Russo observed that a memoir has to be more than a list of events; even when the subject is a celebrity, an artless recitation of memories can become wearisome.
Also, Russo said that writing breeds empathy. He had always thought that reading the classic novels would help to mold his character, but in fact, he had been wrong. It is writing that changes who you are—makes you consider events from multiple perspectives, deepens your appreciation for other people, other ways of living.
When Russo’s memoir, Elsewhere, became available for review, I snapped it up.
The setting—at least for the first part—is Gloversville, a small, failing town in New York State. Gloversville had once been thriving; it had attracted immigrants with unique talents for designing and sewing women’s hand gloves. However, these kinds of gloves fell out fashion. Jackie Onassis was the last major figure to promote them. Gifted glove artisans were forced to work in factories, and the demand for their products quickly diminished.
It was into this depressed, dysfunctional world that Russo emerged. He was his mother’s darling; “Rickio Mio!” she would exclaim frequently. Young Russo’s father, on the other hand, seemed to be an unapologetic and drunken non-entity. He did almost nothing to support his son and disappeared for most of Russo’s childhood. His main contributions to Russo’s memories were occasional drunken nights when he would sit outside in his car, screaming to find out what had come of Russo’s mother’s most recent date with some other man.
Russo apprehended at an early age that his mother wasn’t quite right in the head. “Your mother’s crazy,” his grandfather would say. “Your mother’s crazy,” Russo’s (possibly crazier) father would mutter. Occasionally, Mama Russo would have breakdowns, and she would coax her way back to semi-functional behavior by giving herself a “strict talking-to”. This phrase disturbed Russo. It implied that there was more than one Mama Russo—that Mama Russo could divorce herself from her body and address her body from above. No one wants to imagine that his own mother is at war with herself.
In any case, with significant assistance from her own folks, Mama Russo was able to feed and clothe Young Russo throughout childhood. Russo then chose to attend college in Arizona—with less-than-subtle encouragement from his mother. Mama Russo had no interest in remaining in Gloversville; she would hitch herself to her son’s star and hightail it out of that wheezing, dying town.
And so Russo helped his mother to establish herself in Arizona while he pursued his studies. And he found that he was extraordinarily resilient, gifted, and lucky.
He landed himself a tolerant wife. He launched a successful academic career, followed (wonder of wonders!) by decades of literary fame. Meanwhile, his mother deteriorated. She was unable to find steady, suitable employment. She became isolated and unwilling to date. More and more, she felt uncomfortable in her own skin, and she made increasingly outlandish demands of her son and daughter-in-law.
Anyone who has read Raymond Carver’s story “Boxes” will recognize this trajectory. Mama Russo was mentally ill, and her untreated condition was getting worse and worse. She could not make herself home in any of the apartments her son painstakingly selected for her. She clung to the delusion that, if she could only locate a cleaner, quieter, more desirable home, all of her problems would be solved.
Eventually, she died—and it was only after her death that Russo realized she had suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder. No one had thought to suggest therapy or medication. By tolerating his mother’s insane behavior, Russo had merely aided and abetted a disease. He had given his mother what she wanted, and not what she needed.
There’s a good deal of pain in this well-paced, beautifully-detailed story. I sometimes think that all of us are crazy; it’s just that some of us are crazier than others. And so it’s likely that you will recognize a family member of your own in Russo’s depiction of his mother, and you will suffer anew as you are forced to think about the toll mental illness has taken on your own life. Certainly, this description matches my own encounter with Russo’s memoir. I grew up with a depressed and anxious mother unwilling to seek proper treatment, and a mostly-absent, withdrawn father who seemed to regard his wife as a third child. Elsewhere dredged up difficult memories for me, and in doing so, made me feel less alone.
Even the novel’s setting, Gloversville, struck a chord with me. I came of age in a sad suburb of Buffalo—an area that had once been prosperous, and was rapidly collapsing throughout my early years.
Anyway, Elsewhere has merit even for those among us who grew up in happy families, in thriving towns. (Do such people exist? Holler back if you hear me!)
First, it nicely avoids the trap Russo himself has described in other media: Memoirs are too often laundry lists, without a sense of style. Russo has style to spare. Elegant elisions, forceful revelations, tension-ratcheted-up—this memoir reads like a novel, a novel by a Pulitzer Prize-winning artist. One never knows what will come next in the tug-of-war between Russo and his mother, and one cares desperately. And Russo can wring drama from ideas, as Robin Romm does in another now-classic “Mom” memoir, The Mercy Papers.
As you read Russo’s dissection of his mother’s literary tastes, you might think you’re racing to the conclusion of a murder mystery, so propulsive and seductive is Russo’s mode of narration. (Contrast this level of drama with the surprisingly slow-paced classic, Instead of a Letter, by Diana Athill. As I make my way through Athill’s memoir, I sometimes wish she would take a few lessons from Russo.)
Also, Russo’s memories shed valuable light on his own famous novels. There’s an urge to find redemption in almost every Russo tale; despite the darkness in Empire Falls, for example, one walks away with a sense of a happy—or at least happy-ish—ending. Now, it seems clear why Russo is so wedded to the idea of silver linings. He fought so hard to give his own mother a silver lining; when he inevitably failed, he could at least take comfort in finding sources of optimism for the characters in his fiction.
That’s not to say I’m entirely wowed by Elsewhere. I think Russo lets himself off the hook a bit too easily; he says he doesn’t feel guilty about having failed to suggest therapy for his mother, but why shouldn’t he feel a bit guilty? And he’s rather quick to dismiss criticisms of his novels. When the critics pop up in his memoir, he’s sarcastic toward them, as if he were a peevish child.
Still, nobody’s perfect.
This is an excellent book that wastes very few words. I have find myself recommending it to friends.