On Some Prose of Russo,
Be It Ever So Humble, Take II
The day of commencement in 2005, my father drove me to campus to pick up my rented academic regalia. As we drove through Columbia, my father surprised me by asking, "Where do you think of as 'home?'"
"Well, my house, I suppose," I answered.
"No, I mean, of all the places you lived while growing up, which place was 'home?'"
I understood the question-- my brother lives in Saranac Lake, New York, but at least once or twice a month he goes back to the town of Gloversville, where my parents lived from 1991 through 1996. If you asked him, I think he'd probably tell you that he was "going home" on those days-- that the town near Albany was home, even though he worked in the North Country.
I don't tend to think like that, usually-- it seems to me that "home" is a place that fills you with comfort and happiness, and I don't think I've ever been as comfortable or as happy as when Emily and I started living together. I'm not just blowing smoke here-- sure, we argue and sometimes require time to ourselves, but in general I think Emily "gets" me in a way most people don't, and I think I "get" her in a similar way. And when it comes to building a home together, we've never really argued about things like where to live or how to decorate or anything like that. I was right about the creation of the "rock and roll dining room," Emily was right that the velvet Elvis and dogs playing poker belonged in my office, and not in the living room. We really didn't even have to discuss these things-- we both just seemed to intuit how we-- and our things-- could occupy the same space. That, to me, is home.
Nevertheless, I did admit to my dad that, if any of the places I'd lived prior to Columbia felt like "home"-- Excelsior Springs, Missouri; Winstead, Conneticut; Willows, California; Buckhannon, West Virginia; Gloversville, New York; Canton, New York, or Marquette, Michigan-- then it would have to be Gloversville. I graduated from high school there. I keep in touch with more friends from that era of my life (1991-1994) than any other before or since. I don't go back often, but it's the only place I ever do go back to at all.
I bring this up today because, last night, I stayed up until the early morning hours reading Richard Russo's latest novel, Bridge of Sighs, which was pretty close to excellent. A couple weeks ago, Papatya asked her students and readers of her blog which one author they would read every word of, given the opportunity, and last week Emily gave her answer. For me, the answer is Richard Russo. I not only would read every word he's written, but I believe I have read every word he's written (including a relatively obscure craft essay about the importance of setting that he wrote long before he started winning Pulitzer Prizes). That's not a terribly-impressive feat-- the guy's written six novels and a collection of short stories (and, again, the one craft essay that I know of), and he has a style that's pleasant and engaging enough to get him reviews from magazines like People, so this is less an accomplishment to boast of than an admission that I devour Russo's prose like Dick Cheney devours human blood (oh, you thought I'd leave snide political asides about Republicans being vampires out of this review? Thing again, dickhead).
The odd thing is, Russo's often hit-or-miss with me. When I was in high school I read and loved his first novel, Mohawk (as I've written about), but found it difficult to get into the last time I read it. Nobody's Fool was a good book, but I thought the movie was actually kind of better, as it trimmed away some redundant characters and somehow humanized the otherwise aloof and arrogant character of the protagonist's son. Empire Falls had moments of absolute brilliance, but the ending seemed so rushed-- melodrama that acted as a deus ex machina without actually resolving things-- that I honestly thought, "Maybe he was afraid we would get bored if he let the story go on for the extra hundred pages it needed." Of all his novels prior to 2007, I've only completely loved two-- 1997's Straight Man and 1988's The Risk Pool-- both of these novels were tightly-plotted character studies of not only their narrators, but also the communities these narrators found themselves in. And on a surface level, these two characters and their communities couldn't be more different-- Hank in Straight Man is a sarcastic, middle-aged English professor in a small department at a small college in a small town, while Ned in The Risk Pool is-- for most of the book-- a young boy growing up in a dying town in New York's leatherstocking region. And yet there's something similar in both the voices and conflicts that shape these narratives.
Oh, and I suppose there's the story collection, The Whore's Child, which has at least two great stories in it ("The Whore's Child" and "The Mysteries of Linwood Hart"), but is kind of a mixed bag-- the other stories don't really have the same power as those two, and at least one is quite clearly an early draft of a scene that later made it into Straight Man. One gets the impression that this is mostly a collection of stories sitting in a filing cabinet in Russo's office, hastily assembled to capitalize on the overwhelming success of Empire Falls.
So now that I've trashed some of his efforts, let me now surprise you, perhaps, and tell you that Richard Russo is, hands-down, my favorite writer of fiction. I still love Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Moore and Baldwin and Wolff and Carver, but Russo's my favorite of them all. So when I say that Russo isn't consistently awesome all the damn time, I want you to also understand that I still think he's the best.
Good question. I guess it gets back to the question my father asked, and why I answered the way I did. Gloversville's not my home, but the town and its people still factor heavily in my memories and my imagination-- the way it does for Russo, too. Russo grew up in Gloversville a generation before I started walking past the old leather mills along Fulton Street, the massive, ugly building that poured dyes and other chemicals into the Cayadutta Creek. By the time I got to town, these mills were all boarded up, long-closed. When Russo lived there, the factories had just begun to lay people off as the international leather industry began to move overseas. My paper route took me past the same dive bars, greasy lunch counters, and Off Track Betting facilities that Russo would later describe in interviews as his father's homes away from home, and which would also figure prominently in his novels about the area.
Mohawk, you see, is a thinly-disguised Gloversville-- right down to the names of some of the important buildings (the real Nathan Littauer hospital becomes the Nathan Littler hospital, for example). Bath (from Nobody's Fool) is clearly Ballston Spa. Thomaston in Bridge of Sighs-- the rival town adjacent to Mohawk-- is actually Johnstown, whose football team was always greeted with exaggerated scorn and animosity whenever they took to the GHS field. Russo understands these places and the people who inhabit them, and he understands the way that setting (and the factors that shape it) shapes people.
Most importantly, Russo treats his characters with respect and affection. Even though they're often foolish or cruel, one gets the sense that Russo can find something to understand, like or maybe even admire in these people all the same. It would be easy to write a novel about an area whose industry has left and whose under-educated population somehow devolved into pathetic caricatures-- miserable drunks, shifty-eyed criminals, abusive parents. That's not to say that Russo's novels don't have drunks, criminals, or child abusers in them-- in fact, these types of people are important in most of his books. But the people who inhabit Russo's worlds-- both real and imagined-- or more than just stereotypes or preconceived notions. Russo's novels reveal the injustices of the world in all of their heartbreaking complexity.
Bridge of Sighs also tends to connect this area to the larger world, too-- for the first time, I feel like Russo's able to talk about issues of race, sexuality, and concerns of the world beyond the rural region his charcters inhabit in a nuanced, organic way. And-- maybe even more importantly, to me-- Russo's concern about the environmental impact of the area's economic decisions is clearly important in this novel. I don't want to give too much away about the book, but pretty early on it's quite obvious that more characters are developing cancers in this novel than you might typically see. That's not to say the novel suddenly becomes Erin Brokovich, but the carcinogenic pollution from the old tanneries is an issue that many people in the area still didn't want to talk about in the 90s. This matters to me, I suppose, because... Well, I haven't voiced this suspicion to too many people, and it's not something I could ever prove, I'm sure, but my last summer in Gloversville was spent in an apartment not far from the Cayadutta, which-- we were all told in school-- used to change colors depending on what was being dumped into it (much like the Cayoga Creek in Bridge of Sighs). Five months after moving out, I was diagnosed with a powerful lymphoma that kept growing back until, finally, being blasted into remission with a combination of conventional chemotherapy, aggressive chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant, and a course of radiation therapy that was twice as long as normally prescribed. But what's even more striking is that my landlord, who lived in the apartment below me, developed the same exact cancer in the same exact place and needed the same exact treatment. Coincidence? Maybe. It probably doesn't matter, except to say that I appreciated the way Russo introduced the idea of how "the good old days" that everyone in the area seems so nostaglic about quite possibly left behind the very toxins that would kill them and their children.
Anyway. My parents hated Gloversville. They've never been back. They saw a town where the people all seemed angry, broken-down, disappointed with the way things had turned out. And I saw that too, sure. There was no avoiding it. But I think the reason my brother and I had a different experience in Gloversville than my parents did involved the work we did there-- my dad was a newspaper publisher-- the boss. My mom was a high school teacher-- someone similarly in a position of authority. My brother, on the other hand, worked at McDonald's, and I worked at Shop-N-Save. My parents' encounters with the people of that area all involved somehow giving them instructions, whereas my brother and I worked alongside these people. So while my parents could only notice bitterness and resentment aimed at the people who sign the paychecks or grade the exams, my brother and I also got to know the people of the leatherstocking region-- these people whose parents had been blindsided by the almost-overnight evacuation of the industry that had brought wealth and prosperity to the region-- in a more complex, more complete way. In a way that, I think, Richard Russo got to know them as well. I don't think I'll ever be able to write about this area and its people with as much affection and compassion as Russo can, but I certainly understand and appreciate the point-of-view he puts forth in his novels of the area. And I can highly recommend the books to just about anyone.
Cross-posted at The Ethical Exhibtionist.