Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Richard Russo’s 2012 memoir, Elsewhere, now out in paperback from Vintage Books, is a sometime compelling entry in the ‘life with my crazy single mother’ genre. And if it’s never quite as bizarrely commercial as Running With Scissors, or as comically poignant as Are You My Mother?, it comes across as a soul searching attempt to understand the woman and the author’s very mixed emotions about her.
Of course he does spend some time talking about other things. He writes about Gloversville, his hometown and the setting for some of his best work. He sketches his family histories. He pays lip service to his father, whose involvement in his life after a divorce seems to have been minimal. He tends to pay very little attention to his career, both as a teacher and as a writer. His wife and his own children are mentioned, but they, like nearly everyone else he mentions, are relegated to supporting roles in this account of ‘life with mother.’
The portrait he paints of Jean Russo is far from flattering. She is a needy woman who is always dissatisfied. She is stubbornly insistent on having things her own way, even whether it makes sense or not. Behavior that seems adventurous to the young man, like their cross country trip to Arizona in the wreck of a car he christened the Gray Death when he had just learned to drive may seem downright childish when he is older. Giving up a decent job in the hopes of finding one as good when you get there is less a sign of the woman’s optimism than it is of the wish fulfilling fantasies she weaves.
The older she gets, the more demanding, the more unreasonable. She is unhappy wherever she is. Gloversville is a decaying dead end for a divorcee with a young child. Arizona, where she joins him when he goes off to college, is a disappointment. She returns to Gloversville. It hasn’t changed. He gets a teaching job in Illinois; she tries the mid-west. He moves to Maine; she tries New England. No apartment is right for her. The neighbors are too young; the neighbors are too old. The building is in disrepair. It is located too far from where he and his family are living. It is too expensive. Always, things seem better elsewhere. . It becomes very easy to dismiss the woman much the way her gambler husband does: “You do know your mother is crazy.”
She is a difficult woman, and as a dutiful son, Russo has an obligation, and he takes that obligation seriously. But clearly, nothing he or anyone else, for that matter, could do would satisfy her. Unfortunately for the reader, the constant carping as he and his growing family tiptoe around her discontents gets tedious
That said, one has to wonder why Russo wants to parade the history of his crazy mother around for his readers. It doesn’t seem that he’s looking to be praised for putting up with her, nor is he looking for sympathy. He looks at the woman and he sees her mother. He looks at the woman and sees himself. “Still, did the fact that my mother was more like her mother than she cared to admit mean that I was more like mine than I cared to?” He sees similar personality traits, the same kinds of compulsions. The difference is that he is able to channel his compulsions in a positive direction. The same character traits that make her crazy, make him a novelist. There but for the grace of . . . .
And when it comes right down to it, I would prefer he remain a novelist. A character like Jean Russo in a novel is one thing; a portrait of her in a memoir is something else. If you can turn Gloversville into Empire Falls, give Jean another name and set her down on the Empire Falls equivalent of Helwig Street.