Elsewhere: A Memoir

  • Richard Russo
  • Alfred A. Knopf
  • 246 pp.

A novelist delves into his real-life relationship with his mother, revealing their deeply conflicted mutual affection.

The dust jacket on Richard Russo’s Elsewhere: A Memoir will seduce every reader of a certain age. Featuring a strip of four photo booth shots of a mother and son (eyes and smiles are identical) circa late 1950s (hairdo and haircut are giveaways), the format and subjects will rouse memories from every child of the period. Only later will the reader recall that girlfriends and boyfriends, not mothers and sons, typically visited photo booths. Only later will the reader perceive that the severed first and fourth shots transform the strip into metaphoric frames of a film, with presumably other unseen frames surrounding the beatific ones displayed. And only later will the reader perhaps come to see that the yellow background (“yellow made my mother sick to her stomach”) represents the passive aggression underlying the nostalgia of the dust jacket and the memoir wrapped within it.

The memoir itself will seduce some of us more readily than others. Born a year before Russo, also to Italian-American parents whose own parents had immigrated for skilled work in a Northern mill town, I too left home to study, teach, and write elsewhere, and now rarely return. Like Russo’s mother, mine suffered from what then were called “nerves,” and later anxiety disorder. She lived long and well but died hard, “confused and disoriented those final weeks,” and found rest in a small, family memorial service. But Russo’s home town lies in New York State, mine in New England; his grandfather worked in leather, mine in textiles; his father left his mother and young son, mine did not; he writes novels, I write criticism. Such similarities and differences point to the heart of Russo’s book and the genre of memoirs: making the unfamiliar familiar, and the familiar unfamiliar.

Russo’s memoir focuses on two persons (“locked in a two-person drama, we had no need for additional players”), and it unfolds in a socio-political vacuum that reflects the constrained world of repetitive behavior and “meltdowns” that hound Russo’s mother and turn him into her “enabler,” defining their shared life as “our doomed trajectory.” “It’s more my mother’s story than mine,” Russo writes, “but it’s mine too,” the story of her obsessive behavior and of his dread that “one day I’d be like her — obsessive, dogged, and rigid.” It’s also the story of his shaky belief that his obsession, “storytelling,” more volitional than hers, would provide him the escape from their home town Gloversville that she could not make: “No sooner was she elsewhere — anywhere else — than her loathing turned into loss.” By contrast, Russo the novelist “simply created other Gloversvilles in my imagination,” as though that “simply” doesn’t convey worlds of meaning.

Russo has revealed and explored the shared experiences lurking in an extreme dynamic that most individuals have experienced, though perhaps in other relationships, in another form, and to a lesser degree. He has limned his mother’s and his aspirations and illusions, achievements and lapses, virtues and vices, especially as those pairs figure as two sides of the same coins. He has tracked the domestic arrangements and familial bonds that morphed constantly, a pas de deux performed by dancers, “oddly cleaved by time and gender, like fraternal twins somehow born twenty-five years apart.” And, in the very fine closing pages of the book, he has probed their deeply conflicted mutual affection, their psychological co-dependency and their fundamental identity and difference.

Elsewhere has “limitations.” Focusing on interior states, Russo sacrifices dynamic plotting and compelling incident. Preferring clarity to density, he avoids discussion of the memorial processes that enable and constrain memoirs (though he puts to good use his mother’s habitual “talkings-to” herself). Choosing light over darkness, he often rises too soon from the depths of the central relationship. But we must not wish, unfairly, that Russo had written a different book, when, in fact, he has written an emotionally literate, crystalline, and moving memoir.

Russo takes his title from Coriolanus, likely by way of Richard Poirier’s A World Elsewhere (1966), Poirier’s seminal study of “the place of style,” and the styles of place, in American literature. Russo traverses many places in Elsewhere — Gloversville, Phoenix, and Tucson, Carbondale, Altoona, New Haven, and Waterville, Camden and Boston, and Martha’s Vineyard, site of the memorial service that frames the memoir. In the end, though, he maps only the one place that shapes the worlds his mother and he shared and imagined — desire.

Charles Caramello is Associate Provost for Academic Affairs, Dean of the Graduate School, and Professor of English at the University of Maryland. His current book-in-progress is Riding Late: Essays on Horsemanship, Cavalry, and the Great War.


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