Pulitzer Prize-winning Maine novelist Richard Russo has made a career of fictional storytelling. Not that his real life lacked for colorful people or places, but fiction would prove to be more malleable. He could reinvent the decaying mill town of his youth, recasting it as Empire Falls or Mohawk.
Yet the relationship that dominated most of his life wasn’t nearly so pliable. So we learn in Russo’s poignant and absorbing new book, “Elsewhere: A Memoir.”
To call this a memoir belies the fact that Russo shares the spotlight with a mother who frequently upstages him. From the time of her divorce, Jean Russo resolved that she and her only child, young Ricko-Mio, as she called him, were a team, soulmates, inextricably bound for life.
No matter that her son would eventually go cross-country to college, marry and have a family, teach, write and go on book tours.
In the annals of tangled mother-and-son ties, this is one for the ages.
Growing up in the 1950s, Russo knew that something was awry with his otherwise highly capable and stylish working mother. His grandparents, with whom they shared a two-family house in Gloversville, N.Y., would say she had a case of “nerves.”
But it wasn’t until Russo’s estranged father, a war hero with a gambling habit, put it more bluntly that Russo later understood.
“I couldn’t be your father without being married to that crazy woman,” he said. “You do know your mother’s nuts, right?”
Fact is, Jean Russo suffered years of panic attacks and meltdowns, unraveling and pulling herself together, always with the same underlying conflict: When she lived in Gloversville, she deemed it “a cage,” from which she had to flee. Strained ties with her parents, a dead-end tannery town and her own illness would fuel these episodes.
Yet whenever she would relocate in a quest to gain her mythical independence, she would lament the imagined comforts she’d left behind. This was no mere ambivalence. Hers was a chronic pathology that would trail Russo and his family for years.
Which is also where this memoir comes by much of its humor. The book reads, in part, like an extended road trip with repeated rituals of moving, packing and unpacking, and finding new apartments that would meet the unreasoning demands of a troubled mom.
As a college freshman and new driver, Russo packed his mother into an old beater as they headed to Arizona for the first of many new lives. That they had to avoid steep ramps, or the need to shift into reverse, provides comic relief. That his mother fabricated a job that didn’t exist as a pretext for joining her son, however, was a harbinger of things to come.
What follows is the long trajectory of Russo’s rise and his mother’s decline while living virtually — and sometimes actually — under the same roof. Arizona, Illinois and Maine are among the locales — the “Elsewhere” of the book’s title.
Russo attributes much of his love of reading and writing to his mother, an ardent reader herself. Although she was predictably proud when Russo’s novels won wide acclaim, she was also concerned.
“From various comments she let drop,” he says, “I knew (my mother) was deeply mystified by how many people apparently wanted to read stories set in the kind of industrial backwaters from which she’d worked so hard to escape.”
Nor is this irony wasted on him. Russo inherited his mother’s love-hate ties to Gloversville, as well as her obsessive leanings — in his case, an addiction to pinball in college and, later, poker and the dog track. Only “blind dumb luck,” as he calls it, saved him from his mother’s disabling fate.
“Instead,” he says, “I’d stumbled on storytelling and become infected.”
What’s perhaps most remarkable about this book is the author’s candor. Not only does he come to realize how he jeopardized his marriage, testing his wife’s patience repeatedly over the years; he readily admits his roles as his mother’s “principal enabler” and “Chief Emotional Guardian.”
“Suffice to say that my mother wasn’t the only one caught in a dangerous loop of repetitive behavior,” Russo says.
As in life, this memoir lacks a tidy ending. Readers will find the seeds of Russo’s empathy here, as well as a loving son who was no less trapped than his ailing mother.
If the book has a marked sting of sadness, its author remains as big-hearted, droll and engaging as ever.
Joan Silverman is a freelance writer who lives in Kennebunk.