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.”
Shortly before Russo left New York, Jean convinced her beloved “Ricko-Mio” that relocating to Arizona would jump-start both their lives. An attractive, stylish woman in her 30s, the author’s mother, by then using phenobarbital for her “nerves,” wanted out of Gloversville, too, asking her son, “Don’t I deserve a life?” But when an Arizona job offer proved illusory, Jean descended into a neurotic cycle of fidgety movement, back and forth from wherever Russo was living to Gloversville. Ever faithful, the writer remained his mother’s chauffeur and principal caregiver for 35 years, even after he got married, had children, and began his literary career.
Russo seems like a nice fellow, and you want him to succeed, but the requirements of good storytelling are harsh: three-dimensional characters, a strong sense of place, and the accumulation of specific sensory detail. This is Russo’s hallmark as a fiction writer, but mostly absent here. The soggy main part of this book is a vague chronicle of dingy apartments his mother didn’t like, and the peripatetic wanderings of an itinerant academic traversing the country in search of, not enlightenment or vertu, but a lighter teaching load. Occasionally Russo edges up to the sort of whimsical tragicomedy present in a Wes Anderson film: quirky middle-aged man with his doting, dotty mother always in tow. But ultimately he reverts to something more private, a reckoning of old accounts that never coheres into a story.
“Elsewhere’’ is plagued by rapid time shifts, often jumping over a bundle of years without comment. Russo travels from preadolescent to high school graduate in a few pages, never mentioning a distinctive teacher, neighbor, or friend. Key characters, like his wife, Barbara, and his father, a charming rake who tells Russo his mother is “nuts,” are poorly drawn. About a third of the way in, when Russo says that during graduate school he supported himself by singing in nightclubs, it’s no less surprising than if he’d claimed to be a test pilot or circus acrobat. The book’s narrative architecture is too flimsy, like a house with no interior walls.
After his mother’s death, Russo concludes that what destroyed her was the “conviction that in America, poor people might make the nation’s clothes, build its highways and bridges, and win its wars, but in the end they don’t matter.” But he leaves that insight mostly unexamined, and seems to pinpoint the flaw in his tale when he says, “Locked in a two-person drama, we had no need for additional players.”Jay Atkinson is the author of seven books, including “Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man,’’ published in April. He teaches writing at Boston University and can be reached at email@example.com.