In 1967, Richard Russo left central New York in an old Ford nicknamed the Gray Death, heading for the University of Arizona. By going away to school, Russo, an only child, began a decades-long journey toward his future as a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. But when the young Russo “lit out for the territories,” his divorced mother, Jean, rode beside him in the front seat. It was a place in his life she would never relinquish.
It’s no wonder that Russo, well-known author of “Nobody’s Fool’’ and “Empire Falls,’’ fled Gloversville, the proving ground for the fictional hard luck towns he conjures up in his novels. In the most remarkable passage of “Elsewhere,’’ his memoir of growing up with a troubled mother, he depicts the horror of Gloversville’s leather industry, particularly the “beam house” where Russo’s cousin labored for years. Exposed to nasty chemicals used to strip hair and bits of flesh from the animal “skins,” the underpaid workers suffer a number of horrible maladies. “Finally it itches so bad you can’t stand it anymore, and you grab your thumb or forefinger and give the skin a twist, then a pull. The skin, several layers of it, comes away in one piece, like the finger of a latex glove.”