Richard Russo’s Home Town

I expected to post a list of generic writer’s New Year’s Resolutions today, but once I wrote my list I realized I was writing it for a different audience. In part I was giving myself an annual pep talk, and I was also giving what I considered sage advice to the students I had when I was a teacher of creative writing. The people who read this blog, Get It Write, don’t need that kind of advice; you’re already getting it write. So I’ll post my list (good advice, I still think; at least I take it seriously) this coming Saturday on my own blog, The Joy of Story.

Meanwhile, for this post on the Get It Write blog, I’d like to share a few thoughts about one of my favorite novelists. What you read here is an early and incomplete draft of a book review of Richard Russo’s new memoir, Elsewhere, which I’m writing for Black Lamb, a magazine I contribute to monthly. I hope it catches your interest, and if you don’t already read and enjoy Richard Russo, I strongly recommend him to you.

 

The most persistent and recurring character in the novels of Richard Russo is the character of the town where Russo himself grew up, Gloversville, in upstate New York. Russo gives the town a different alias in his hometown novels: Mohawk in Mohawk and The Risk Pool, North Bath in Nobody’s Fool, Empire Falls in Empire Falls, Thomaston in Bridge of Sighs; but there are more similarities than differences among these towns that Russo calls fictitious in his disclaimers.

This is a town that once prospered, with an industry to be proud of. The industry provided jobs for the town’s citizens and made products that brought money to the community. The town once had a movie theater and a bustling main street with cafes, restaurants, and bars; shops and stores; customers and traffic. There were some grand homes back then, and a high school whose teams won games.

Then time passed the town by, as did the new freeway, leaving Russo’s home town in the dust. The industry took sick when its product could be made cheaper, mass produced out of town and overseas. Economic depression fostered a general psychological depression, which poisoned its citizens. That’s when it became clear that the industry had been poisoning the citizens all along, even in prosperous times, polluting its river and its aquifer with toxic chemical waste.

This town—call it Gloversville—is a town to escape, as Richard Russo did. He went elsewhere, as he describes in his newest book, his memoir, Elsewhere, never to return except on short, uncomfortable visits.

That Richard Russo almost never returned to Gloversville may be literally true, but literarily it’s false, because he has returned in his writing, over and over, book after book, to his home town. Gloversville has become his own personal elsewhere.

So we find, in book after book, a prosperous industry gone bust, a polluted river, an off-track-betting parlor and an ongoing poker game where losers lose their grocery money. There’s a diner, and of course a bar. The people of Gloversville, whatever the alias, include a town simpleton, a gambling bum of a father, a buffoon malevolent cop, a domineering mother, a beautiful woman in love with a man who’s not her own husband, an elderly man kept alive with an oxygen tank, grown children caring for their aging parents, people still loyal to their home town, and other people desperate and unable to get free.

If I’ve made these motifs sound repetitive and predictable, I apologize to Mr. Russo and to anyone reading these words who has not read a Gloversville novel. The fact is the motifs may be dependable, but they’re always surprising, and Richard Russo is a master of plot, character, and scene. He also has a fine ear for dialogue and knows the secret of balancing humor with despair. Each of his novels may be haunted by the real Gloversville, but each has a life of its own.

 

 

 

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2 Responses

  1. Russo is one of my favorite novelists, John. What a great observation— that he returns to his home town over and over! “Empire Falls” is on my list of all-time favorites. I was going to skip his memoir (not my favorite form) but you’ve changed my mind.

  2. I always spent my half an hour to read this blog’s posts daily along with a mug of coffee.

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