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Elsewhere

Richard Russo's memoir of life with his mother is a vivid if devastating portrait of the complicated relationship that overshadowed his life.

By Heller McAlpin / November 14, 2012

Elsewhere By Richard Russo Knopf Doubleday 256 pp.

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The financial and emotional tolls of caring for aging parents has become a hot button topic for baby boomers. But as novelist Richard Russo, born in 1949, makes clear in his new memoir, carrying the weight of his unstable divorced mother's well-being has been a dominating factor for most of his life.

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Elsewhere is actually more his mother's story than his own, which may disappoint fans of this troubadour of small-town, blue collar America.  But Russo's evocation of his hometown, Gloversville, New York – for which his mother's hatred "was like the North Star, the one you navigate by, because otherwise you're lost, completely untethered" – provides insight into why fictional stand-ins for this down-at-heels working class town are central to so many of his novels, including Pulitzer Prize-winning "Empire Falls."

Russo's grandfathers both worked in the local leather trade as a glove cutter and a shoe repairman, respectively. In Gloversville's heyday during the first half of the twentieth century, ninety percent of the dress gloves in America were manufactured there.  But after the second World War, when women started going out bare-handed and production moved overseas for cheap labor, the local economy was hit hard. By the 1970s, once-prosperous Gloversville had become "a Dresden-like ruin." Only later did Russo realize that his hometown was in fact "the canary in the mine shaft" of American towns and industries dying from the outsourcing of manufacturing.

For Russo's fun-loving, stylish mother, Gloversville was a place she abhorred while in residence, yet felt nostalgic about when she wasn't. Separated from her gambling, boozing husband (who worked in road construction), his mother was stuck renting the upstairs apartment in her parents' two-family house.  She worked at GE in Schenectady  and prided herself on what her only child calls her "perceived independence." In truth, he points out, she relied on her parents' assistance, especially with childcare, but resented needing their help.

Russo paints a vivid if devastating portrait of this woman stuck in "a cage of her own design" who identified strongly with Scarlett O'Hara yet had no Tara to root her. He captures her mix of pluck, pigheadedness, and panicked meltdowns. When her beloved "Ricko-Mio" chose to head to Arizona for college, she decided to relocate with him, which he seems to have accepted rather placidly. His spirited account of their hair-raising drive across country in his iffy old Ford Galaxie reads like a scene from one of his tragicomic novels.

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