Memoir

A flawed connection with Mom

 

Richard Russo writes a humorous and melancholic remembrance of his haunted mother.

Two themes that recur in Richard Russo’s fiction are a feckless father and a toxic town. Surprising then to read his memoir and learn how thoroughly his mother dominated his life. Nervous and demanding, alternately shrill and self-effacing, Jean Russo might as well have been a product of Tennessee Williams’ imagination as a person born in Gloversville, N.Y., with its noxious atmosphere and lethal tanneries.

Russo’s grandfathers worked in the shoe and glove industries, and he credits his maternal grandfather with giving him his first lesson as a writer. “He would talk about cutting skins and negotiating flaws to make something beautiful.”

You work with what you have, and from the fabric he inherited Russo has indeed made something exquisite, seven novels, a short story collection, several screenplays. Along with another Pulitzer Prize winner William Kennedy, he reminds restless Americans that there is a New York without the City, without quite so much neon, rich in corruption and not-quite innocent idealism.

Elsewhere is a memoir and a bravura essay, a meditation on negotiating flaws. Jean Russo kept trying to apply the same failed solutions to the problems that haunted her. “She was forever discovering, too late, that her ship, which could easily have been turned around while out at sea, now had to be rotated in the cramped harbor.” Her son confronts chaos, as one must. “This now, that later mode was all about making sound decisions on the fly.” A writer constantly balances logic and intuition. “What you saw in your peripheral vision could be as important as what you were looking at directly.”

That’s the adult Russo speaking. But as he points out, “One of the sadder truths of childhood is that children . . . are unlikely to know if something is abnormal or unnatural unless an adult tells them.” And he, being an only child, had no one to compare notes with.

His mother was, in Kris Kristofferson’s words, a walking contradiction, snobbish about her dependence but frequently unsure of her abilities.

Her son didn’t see her that way at first. As she often reminded him, the two of them were a team, and he was her rock. Fortunately for him, Russo is a largehearted fellow who sees the humor in the melancholy, the melancholy in the humor.

The wheels started to come off in 1967 when Russo decided to go to the University of Arizona and to that end bought an oversized beater with an underpowered engine which he named The Gray Death. What he hadn’t counted on was mom in the passenger seat. With a newly printed driver’s license in his pocket and a U-Haul full of her books and furniture dragging behind, they set off for Phoenix where Jean claimed she had a job, and for Tucson where Richard was to enroll. And yes, the Interstate on-ramps were as perilous in 1967 as they are now.

Jean wanted to get away from Gloversville and make a fresh start. That love/hate relationship with home might have been the most normal thing about her. Certainly it reappears in her son’s poignantly conflicted fictionalized portraits of Gloversville: Thomaston, Empire Falls, North Bath, Mohawk.

Jean’s insistence she was independent while becoming more and more dependent was a pattern that spiraled through her life with increasing intensity and fury. When Russo was still straddling the life of a husband, the father of two college age daughters, a professor and a writer, he and his wife privately joked that they never went anywhere for longer than it took Jean’s milk bottle to turn sour.

Yet Russo hasn’t written a Mommie Dearest or The Liars’ Club. He has explicated his own fiction writing, the way he blends and fuses the roguish and the dark without ever giving way to bitterness.

A reader of Russo’s memoir might be more judgmental of Jean Russo than her son was. What he did was understand fully his grandfather’s observation about negotiating flaws. Or as he puts it, “the most important lesson an artist can learn is to recognize that the world is imperfect and that it will not cooperate.”

Betsy Willeford is a writer in Miami.

Read more Books stories from the Miami Herald

  •  
 <span class="cutline_leadin">An Idea Whose Time Has Come:</span> Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.. Todd Purdum. Holt. 398 pages. $30.

    History

    Book assesses the impact of the Civil Rights Act 50 years later

    The veterans of the civil rights movement gathered at the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library in Texas this month to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and assess its impact. Then the living embodiment of that legislation walked on stage.

  • What do you recommend?

    “The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton — it’s a book built around characters and plots inspired by astrological principles. It’s a neo-Victorian murder mystery and a mere 832 pages long, and it made 28-year-old Catton the youngest person to win the coveted Man Booker Prize. The voice is natural, easy to understand and ambitious; she’s a novelist who is seeking to reclaim the authorial, a writer who seeks to entertain and enlighten.”

  •  
 <span class="cutline_leadin">The Boom:</span> How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World. Russell Gold. Simon & Schuster. 384 pages. $26.

    Nonfiction

    Book considers the pros and cons of fracking

    Author considers both sides of the controversial issue.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category