Thursday, January 9, 2014

Russo's Elsewhere

Richard Russo's Elsewhere is a painfully honest memoir.  It is lovingly detailed.  It appears that we have some shared family history, his novels focusing on many similar issues particularly his relationship with his mother, the theme of Elsewhere.  He is among the many contemporary American writers I admire most, such as John Updike, Pat Conroy, Anne Tyler, Anita Shrive, John Irving, Richard Yates, Richard Ford, Russell Banks, Philip Roth, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver (among others, I'm sure I've left someone out). They speak directly to me.  And somewhere in this blog, I've connected these writers to many of my own family issues.

But of all of them, Russo's writings seem to come closest to my own family angst (see my entry on his novel, That Old Cape Magic), and Elsewhere hits my funny bone as well and reveals the roots of his fictional world. Russo had almost a symbiotic relationship with his mother, but it was an approach-avoidance issue, a mother who on the one hand he tried to keep at whatever distance he could (without much success), for the sake of his individuality and for the sake of his family, but, on the other, obligingly (and lovingly), took responsibility for, particularly as she aged. 

When Russo was a young child, his mother worked for GE in Schenectady, living with Russo's grandparents in Gloversville and commuting (after divorcing her ne'er-do-well husband - the kind portrayed in Russo's Nobody's Fool and The Risk Pool), asserting her independence by paying her parents rent.  During WW II, when my father was away at the front, my own mother worked for Atlantic Burners (a local heating oil distribution company) in Queens, NY as a secretary/administrative assistant and for years I would hear about how much she missed being a professional woman.  We too lived with her parents at the time, with my primary care being passed onto my grandmother and great-grandmother, who lived with us as well.
Russo details the decline of the leather business, it's impact on his home town, Gloversville, and his family, a story eerily close to Philip Roth's family's leather business, and the decline of Newark, as told in his novel American Pastoral, perhaps one of the best novels of the late 20th century.  These were generations of families in the same business, as mine was in the photography business for more than 100 years, and, that kind of business too changed to such an extent that it eventually just faded away.

I was amused by Russo's statement My mother did love mirrors, often practicing in front of them.  My mother liked to pose and preen in front of mirrors, painstakingly putting on her make-up. In fact, she was very caught up in her appearance and good looks.  She knew she attracted men, something that infuriated my father at times. 
But from there, Russo's relationship with his mother, and me with mine, diverge greatly, mostly because, unlike Russo's parents, my parents stayed married (when they should have been divorced) and I was not an only child.  There was my sister in the mix, and that changed the dynamics.  During my troubled teenage years, I made it a point of being out of the house as much as possible as my parents waged war.  And after college I moved further away and by the time of my second marriage, I was hardly speaking to my mother (or vise versa), not that I'm particularly proud of that period, but I had to protect my wife and kids.  She was a rageaholic, perpetually assigning blame for her unhappiness to others. She also was a borderline alcoholic which only fed the flames. Nonetheless, we had some kind of reconciliation before her death, for which I am grateful. 

In later years, my mother turned to art and she was an accomplished painter of still life, portraits, mostly working in oils.  I'll give her credit for seeking a creative outlet, and she was a good artist but sadly, except for this pencil sketch she did of me (a very idealized version of what I looked like at about 12), I have only one of her oil paintings.

But getting back to Elsewhere, Russo had the devotion of a saint toward his mother, who had declared, basically that it was he and she against the world, making him promise (as a child) to always look out for one another, almost as if he were her spouse, not her son.  Even in later years, after Russo had married (his wife, Barbara, another saint as well) and had daughters of his own, she reminded him of their "pledge" to one another:

One of my mother's most cherished convictions was that back on Helwig Street - she and I had pledged an oath, each to the other. She and I would stand together against whatever configuration the world's opposition took-her parents, my father, Gloversville, monetary setbacks. Now, forty-some years later, I was a grown man with a wife and kids, but this original bond, she believed, was still in force. However fond she was of Barbara, however much she loved her granddaughters, none of that altered our original contract, which to her way of thinking made us indivisible. She'd never really considered us two separate people but rather one entity, oddly cleaved by time and gender, like fraternal twins somehow born twenty-five years apart, destined in some strange way to share a common destiny.

His dissection of her motives, self defense mechanisms, lack of friendships, dependency on him demonstrates that great writers are great psychologists.  Later he learns that his father's offhand foreboding that "she's crazy" had some grounding in that she was OCD
Still, his mother taught him to persevere (although never understanding why he would want to be a writer with his fine academic credentials that would assuredly lead to a tenured, secure position).  He even chose lower paying positions. teaching less, to pursue his writing objectives, not succeeding at first, sort of like when I decided to go into publishing rather than into a more lucrative insurance underwriting position (at the time), as well as choosing not to go into my father's business...

Long after she returned to Gloversville from Tucson, I began a decade-long academic nomadship during which I jumped from job to job, trying to teach and be a writer at the same time. For a while, after our daughters came along, we were even poorer than we'd been as graduate students. And I was a bad boy. Caring not a whit about tenure and promotion, thumbed my nose at the advice of department chairs about what I needed to do to succeed in the university. I left jobs for other jobs that paid less but offered more time out of the classroom, In the summer, when many of my colleagues taught extra classes, I wrote stories and spent money we didn't have on postage to submit them to magazines. I wrote manically, obsessively, but also, for a time, not very well. I wrote about crime and cities and women and other things I knew very little about in a language very different from my own natural voice, which explained why the editors weren't much interested.

Later in life Russo finds that voice, and a discipline, and has an epiphany one day as he is looking at the books and periodical articles he had published -- that his writing was the result of an obsessive personality, like his mother's ...

The biggest difference between my mother and me, I now saw clearly, had less to do with either nature or nurture than with blind dumb luck, the third and often lethal rail of human destiny. My next obsession might well have been a woman, or a narcotic, a bottle of tequila. Instead I'd stumbled on storytelling and become infected. Halfway through my doctoral dissertation, I'd nearly quit so I could write full-time. Not because I imagined I was particularly gifted or that one day I'd be able to earn a living. I simply had to. It was the game room and the dog track all over again. An unreasoning fit of must. That, no doubt, was what my mother had recognized and abhorred, what had caused her to remind me about my responsibilities as a husband and father.

It didn't take long for me to learn that novel writing was a line of work that suited my temperament and played to my strengths, such as they were. Because - and don't let anybody tell you different - novel writing is mostly triage (this now, that later) and obstinacy. Feeling your way around in the dark, trying to anticipate the Law of Unintended Consequences. Living with and welcoming uncertainty. Trying something, and when that doesn't work, trying something else. Welcoming clutter. Surrendering a good idea for a better one. Knowing you won't find the finish line for a year or two, or five, or maybe never, without caring much. Putting one foot in front of the other. Taking small bites, chewing thoroughly. Grinding it out Knowing that when you've finally settled everything that can be, you'll immediately seek out more chaos. Rinse and repeat. Somehow, without ever intending to, I'd discovered how to turn obsession and what my grandmother used to call sheer cussedness - character traits that had dogged both my parents, causing them no end of difficulty - to my advantage. The same qualities that over a lifetime had contracted my mother's world had somehow expanded mine. How and by what mechanism? Dumb luck? Grace? I honestly have no idea. Call it whatever you want - except virtue.

It's a writer's astute introspective view of what writing is all about.  And how one's upbringing and genes ebb and flow in his fiction.

His mother passed on a love of reading, and as Russo says, you can't be a writer without first being a reader.  My own childhood was spent bereft of books and I can't remember my parents reading other than the occasional potboiler, Time and Life magazines, and my father's subscription to the Reader's Digest Condensed Books.  Essentially, I grew up without books, except, of course, at school, and I think that did damage to me as a writer, in spite of writing this blog, and making half assed attempts at short stories and poetry. I rarely read anything on my own other than Jules Verne.

On the other hand, my father instilled a work ethic in me and my mother taught me typing and encouraged my attempts at music (except for the guitar which she condemned).  I still consider typing 70 WPM (unusual for a young man in the 1960s) to be the basis for a successful career, as silly as that might seem.  That is how I got my job in publishing.  And the piano has blossomed into something central in my retirement, a place where I can go to express myself and be at peace with the world. 

Russo was looking at his mother's book collection during one of her many, many moves, all of which Russo was left the responsibility for engineering, commenting...

She claimed to love anything about Ireland or England or Spain, but in fact she needed books in those settings to be warm and comfy, more like Maeve Binchy than William Trevor. Not surprisingly, given that she'd felt trapped most of her life, she loved books about time travel, but only if the places the characters traveled to were ones she was  interested in. She had exactly no interest in the future or in any past that didn't involve romantic adventure.

Still, illuminating though literary taste can be, the more I thought about it, neither my mother's library nor my own meant quite what I wanted it to. If my books were more serious and literary than hers, that was due more to nurture than nature.  If I didn't read much escapist fiction, 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 a 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. Back when we lived on Helwig Street, at the end of her long workdays at GE, after making her scant supper and cleaning up, after doing the laundry (without benefit of a washing machine) and ironing, after making sure I was set for school the next day, she might've collapsed in front of the television, but she didn't. She read. Every night. Her taste, unformed as mine would later be by a score of literature professors, was equally dogmatic; she read her Daphne du Mauriers and Mary Stewarts until their covers fell off and had to be replaced. It was from my mother that I learned reading was not a duty but a reward, and from her that I intuited a vital truth: most people are trapped in a solitary existence, a life circumscribed by want and failures of imagination, limitations from which readers are exempt. You can't make a writer without first making a reader, and that's what my mother made me

I can't help but think of Pat Conroy's My Reading Life which is also a memoir, and in which his mother plays a central role in Conroy's love of reading and then writing.  There are so many similarities, including their mothers' shared love of the same novel, Gone With the Wind.

I had a dream after I had read Elsewhere, during the early morning hours when I can at least remember a snippet of what I dream.  I was sitting with Richard Russo's son (he has only daughters), and I mentioned to him that I would like to meet his father, something I didn't feel daunted about (as I felt the one time I might have had the opportunity to meet John Updike at a PEN conference, but did not have the courage or the opportunity, I can no longer remember).  That little boy I was talking to in the dream was obviously me, and as I talked to him, I gradually woke up with a sense of sadness overcoming me, for the lost opportunity, wanting to ask my mother one last question: Why, Mom?    

But Russo's childhood was far from "ideal" as well (is there such a childhood?), such a burden -- the "pledge" his mother made him take as a child.  And yet, he is one of our finest storytellers today.  Richard Russo, thank you for sharing your story with us, for your honesty, and for being the writer you've become.  You were a good son.