Review: Elsewhere by Richard Russo Print

Elsewhere(American Book Review Volume 34, Number 2, January/February 2013)

Beyond Blood

For Richard Russo—who, along with John Irving, is a kingpin of New England novelists: ten books, eight of them fiction, one a Pulitzer prizewinner—“love your mother” is not some affirmation he’s noted on a three-by-five card and keeps in his shirt pocket. He does love her. Unfailingly. Undetachably. A long life, both devoted to and trapped by Mom, has proved it. Russo’s mother—Jean to her friends—raised him after separating from her no-count, gambler husband in the small town of Gloversville, New York, home to a glove factory and her family who worked the trade. Early on, Mom secures the boy’s pledge that they’ll stand together no matter what. No matter that they must share a house with her parents, against the latter’s wishes, and no matter that the ensuing friction, along with her eventual joblessness, poverty, and dependency, defines their drama.

This strangely celebrant entanglement is written as a looking-back summary (with selected pithy scenes) of their buddy-like bond. When Richard leaves Gloversville (where his youth and Jean’s security is least fraught) and heads college in Arizona, there’s just one snag. Mom comes with. When he moves to Illinois for his first teaching job, Mom comes with. And for the rest of his life—his teaching and quitting teaching, his novel-writing career, his marriage, two daughters, taking care of Mom’s parents, a succession of jobs/homes in Illinois, New York, Maine—you got it: Mom comes with, requiring her own house or apartment nearby where she counts on her son’s visits and daily phone calls—Mr. Fixit, Mr. Psychologist, Mr. Enabler.

No wonder Elsewhere’s portrait is a rich impasto—Russo’s decrypting her psychological dependency, her ebb-and-flow self-esteem, her manic peevishness, not to mention his own guilt for always playing to her hand. Beyond blood, Mom is his appendage. (Who’s given birth to whom is the riddle the memoir invites Russo to solve.) She’s not just needy and moody one day, proud and determined the next, illogical and truculent the next. It’s that Russo never knows what she wants, though, for the most part, he’s able to box her out of his writing time. She doesn’t haunt Russo as much as she consumes his free time, a burden Russo’s wife worries over. Mom’s doctor’s appointments, leaving noisy apartment complexes, packing and unpacking books, her schisms with friends. Several oft-quoted lines distinguish her. To others: “My son does that.” “I live independently.” To Richard: “Don’t I deserve a life?” “I need you to come.” “Ricko-Mio. Always there. Always my rock.”

Russo has an appealingly nifty way of de-centering himself. He defers to Mom, analyzes her disposition as vigorously in the life as he does in writing the life. This is so, in part, because he does the work of understanding her roiling emotions; she’s largely incapable of that. But it’s more germane that her chameleonic nature fascinates this noticer-novelist. As if every day Jean is a newly unwrapped gift—a fictional character whom her son does not have to invent and yet who flowers and fulminates like any good protagonist, a regular Mrs. Bridge out of the Evan S. Connell novel.

In the opening pages, Russo presents her primary trait. “This was something the whole family seemed aware of, but no one talked about it. One word, nerves, was evidently deemed sufficient to describe, categorize, stigmatize, and dismiss it.” He realizes (post-death, of course) that her magnetic, repellant self bespeaks her condition, often drowns others; the keel to calm waters is managing it. Did he know that all along? Hardly. But he recalls just how hyperaware he’s had to be: any minute she might have gone off, got sick, broken down. “Her health was in my hands,” he writes. “Other kids were good because they didn’t want to get punished if they misbehaved; I was good because I feared that if I misbehaved it was my mother who’d be punished.”

Russo’s personality fits—“linked destinies” is his phrase—with a mother like Jean. He slowly unearths his co-dependency, one adaptively unconscious but still, not pretty. He’s one of the reasons her actions follow a script. For example, in her late life, when with arthritis and acid reflux and high blood pressure she becomes listless rather than energized after disputes, Russo wishes her spirit is broken, that she’d be free at last from “her indomitable will that fueled this costly, unwinnable war, her intractable determination that was responsible for her seemingly endless suffering.” But then he regrets hoping she’s in the end-game because no wearing down will “address the relentless cycle of her anxieties.”

Add to that another of the book’s approach-avoidances, one of many this vortical memoir takes on. Tellingly, Russo seems to have started writing only after Mom died (the opening begins with his strewing her ashes), once his anxiety calms and he’s burdensomely unmoored. He’s also able to examine a line his father said long ago: “You do know your mother’s nuts, right?” (Dad meant loony-tunes while Russo analyzes her affliction as OCD.) Russo realizes that Mom, or the Mom he thought he knew, is not exactly his subject. Rather, it’s her still evolving character who occupies his freedom from her. She is the one memoir writing pushes onto the stage; her performance in his prose intrigues him as much as his memory of her does.

That Mom fertilized her son’s later tilling is reminiscent of Kierkegaard’s line about living life forward and assessing it backwards. “If I didn’t read much escapist fiction [growing up],” Russo writes, “it was because I lived a blessed life from which I neither needed nor desired to escape. I wasn’t a superior person, just an educated one, and for that in large measure I had my mother to thank. Maybe she’d tried to talk me out of becoming a writer, but she was more responsible than anyone for my being one.”

Hmmm. Responsible? Is that the right word? Responsibility seems to be something you take or should take. Influential? Significant?

To write memoir, the thing you’re trying to get right is the integrity of the contradictions our loved ones leave us with. How well can you define and support those contradictions? During their fifty-plus years of inseparability, Russo cycled with his mother along the “dangerous loop of repetitive behavior.” Down this track, he knew his mother intimately but his knowledge was incomplete. He was too close to assess it all, and the whole he shapes now is strained by the dependent moments he feels again, which resist any end, especially the sentimental or the tidy.

The degree to which a writer values and sustains paradox in a memoir—and Russo has done so brilliantly, unwaveringly—is the degree to which a book has a life of its own, often more hurtful and hopeful than the putative one or two it recalls.