The Richness of Russo Reading List
Richard Russo never paid any attention to the maxim that “you can’t go home again.” The town of his childhood – Gloversville, N.Y. – is the basis for North Bath in Everybody’s Fool, and, though it goes by several names, is the stage set for most of Russo’s novels.
Many writers return again and again to the places of their childhood – think of Montana writer Ivan Doig’s Two Medicine Country, for example – but it’s striking how similar the towns of Russo’s imagination are. Sure, they have different names – Mohawk and Empire Falls and Thomaston and North Bath – but they’re all based on Gloversville, a place Russo left for college and never returned to live. But he carries Gloversville with him, a place where after the glove factories closed “you could have strafed Main Street with an automatic weapon without endangering a soul.”
Someone once said that in a novel, a small town is a perfect stage for a group of players. Here are some of Russo’s books where a small town, usually in New York or New England, has served as a place where people know each other all too well:
Mohawk. This was Richard Russo’s 1986 debut novel, set in a town of the same name. Mohawk is on the skids. Its tanneries are closing, and the toxic carcinogenic chemicals used in the tanning process have poisoned the water.
Mohawk follows the fortunes of two families who both love and hate each other and themselves, and if you read Russo you will not be surprised to learn that in this small town there’s a diner, where everyone hangs out and gives one other a very hard time.
In an astonishingly unfriendly Kirkus review, the reviewer called Mohawk “Workmanlike writing for lovers of the well-atmosphered small-town saga with not a cliche unturned. For those idle hours between daytime soaps.” Clearly, this Richard Russo fellow had no future.
I’m going to jump forward to Nobody’s Fool, Russo’s 1993 novel that immortalized Donald Sullivan, otherwise known as Sully, as one of American literature’s most unforgettable characters (in case you never read the book, just remember Paul Newman in the wonderful movie version).
Nobody’s Fool, the prequel to Everybody’s Fool, is set in North Bath, an aging tannery town with that progress appears to have passed by. There’s a diner, and a host of loyal diner patrons, including Sully, Raymer and Rub, who use the diner as the stage on which to play out their heartaches and tragedies and life choices, a few of which are good, most of which are not.
Writing in the New York Times, Francine Prose said that life in North Bath, as in Balzac’s novels, is “lived entirely in public.” Everybody knows everybody all too well in North Bath, and the lucky reader gets the entire backstory. Best of all, the story is not over – Russo carries it forward into Everybody’s Fool.
Had Richard Russo had enough of small towns? Apparently not. 2001’s Empire Falls, set in a fictional small blue-collar town of Empire Falls in Maine, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
One of the town characters is Miles Roby, a Russo-esque nice guy who has to come home from college and – guess what – manage the family diner. The Whitings, the family that owns the huge shirt factory in town, dominate the town and Miles’ life. Mrs. Whiting promises Miles the eventual ownership of the diner, and she plays him like a violin, pushing the diner ever so slightly further out of reach.
There are some unlikely heroes and some real villains in Empire Falls, and you won’t forget either one. In the New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote that Russo “writes about people who work hard, behave dutifully, fall in love with what they can’t have and begin to fear that they’ve made the wrong choices. Then they wonder what on earth to do next.”
Russo’s 2007 novel Bridge of Sighs was set in another upstate New York town – Thomaston. There’s a tannery and a polluted river. The town is divided into the gritty and the upwardly mobile. In Bridge of Sighs Russo is wrestling with aging – the main characters are in their 60s, and they are all struggling with the legacy of their upbringing in a town that haunts them, whether they stayed put or whether they left.
Finally, Russo came out from behind the curtain of fiction and actually wrote a memoir, Elsewhere, about his upbringing in the small town of Gloversville, where nine out of ten gloves in this country were once made – until people stopped wearing gloves so much, and glovemaking moved overseas.
He was raised his mother, a proud working woman who was also shadowed by mental illness.
I haven’t read Elsewhere, but it’s on my list, because it tells Russo’s story, not just of his childhood but his adulthood and his evolution into a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. And it’s the story of his relationship with his mother, as she followed her gifted son from city to city. He was everything to her, and he kept the faith with that.
Eventually Russo comes to realize that his mother suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder. Critics said that Elsewhere is a sad but beautifully written work of intellectual honesty, by a son who realized that he owed his mother just about everything.