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.