Momma’s Boy: “Elsewhere” by Richard Russo

UnknownRichard Russo is a novelist, author of Nobody’s Fool, Empire Falls, and other major works. Elsewhere is a memoir. He should have called it Momma’s Boy.

Russo’s actual title is a backhanded reference to his childhood home town, Gloversville, NY, which figures prominently in the book — “elsewhere” is where he’d much rather be. But the book is mainly centered upon Russo’s mother, Jean. As indeed was he, for most of his life.

Jean worked for GE; though we’re never told precisely what her job was, it was apparently a good one, making her that ‘50s-60s rara avis, a career girl. images-4Russo mentions several times her picture in a slick GE magazine — the epitome of a stylish woman.

Russo’s father, a feckless gambler and boozer, jumped ship early. But Russo kept some contact with him, and eventually he relates that, about age 21, his dad told him, “You know your mother is nuts, right?” It was meant literally, and Russo did know, though it was a shock to confront the truth so bluntly. Yet Russo continued to treat his deeply involved relationship with Jean as the most natural thing in the world.

Their fateful Rubicon was a cross-country trip Russo made, to go to college, in Arizona — with Jean deciding to come along, making it their joint escape from hated Gloversville. She said, and maybe believed, a job was awaiting her at an Arizona GE facility. Not so; and that was when Russo began to realize his mom was “off-kilter.”

images-3But for the next four decades Russo was a B’rer Rabbit stuck to the tar baby of Jean and her idiosyncrasies — though he seemed oddly quite fine with it. This didn’t change with his young marriage to Barbara. There were really, as Princess Di famously said of her own situation, three in the marriage. images-5The book tells us very little about Barbara (which itself is telling), but she must have been either a saint or a masochist to put up with the supervening role that Jean, and Jean’s issues, played in their lives.

A particular torture was finding apartments for Jean, because so many it can’t be this and it can’t be thats did she posit that rare indeed was the apartment she’d agree to occupy. So Russo spent a major chunk of his life apartment hunting for his mother. And even seemingly perfect ones usually wouldn’t work out. And then, when at long last, he’s actually managed to get Jean well settled in a place she likes — he decides, for not very compelling reasons, to move the family. I was thinking, “This is nuts.” (As did Russo himself, before long.)

Richard Russo

Richard Russo

But “this is nuts” was a recurring thought of mine throughout the book. My own relationship with my parents (and, indeed, with my daughter) was/is frankly toward the other end of the spectrum. At least I haven’t had the kind of intergenerational conflicts that afflict so many people; but nor the depth of intimacy in Elsewhere. Only with my wife do I have such a close relationship. But maybe this is not exactly “normal” either. And while I was contrasting Russo’s situation against my own, I tried to refrain from judging his as bad or wrong. Russo didn’t see it that way, and after all it was his his life, which he actually seemed to find rewarding in a way, and missed when that aspect of it ended.

After Jean’s death, Russo’s daughter has a bout of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder; and when he reads up on it, he realizes that’s what Jean had too. And that he had handled it the wrong way, as an enabler, rather than trying to get her proper treatment. His retrospective feelings about his mother become mixed with guilt.

Only once, toward the end, does he ever say he loved her. But “love” is too simple a word anyway. Our connections with other people are tangled with complexities, and that’s what our lives are really all about. images-6In Richard Russo’s case, the focus of all that was his mother; that’s what his life was mainly about. It may not be exactly the kind of life that you or I would wish to live, but we’re not him, and his was, for all its seeming weirdness, a quintessentially human life and, in its way, a rich one.

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2 Responses to “Momma’s Boy: “Elsewhere” by Richard Russo”

  1. Jessica Says:

    Since there are usually four weeks in a month, I drew four branches.
    This gadget will allow your readers to find driving directions from one place to another directly from your blog.

  2. Joyce Says:

    If you credit Russo with, ultimately, living his own life, why title the piece with “Momma’s Boy.” Increasing Internet search results? although that is not remotely how I came to this website.

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