GLOVERSVILLE - "But what a nest of thorns the past can be."
So writes Richard Russo in "Elsewhere," a new memoir in which he tries to untangle his troubled relationships with his hometown and his late mother. Four decades after he left to embark on what would become a brilliant career as a novelist, Russo remains haunted by Gloversville, the place he describes as the wellspring of his literary imagination.
The book doesn't attempt to chronicle Russo's entire life story, but it begins and ends with his bittersweet ruminations about Gloversville, and along the way it details his relationship with his mother, Jean, who raised him mostly on her own as a rare working mom in the 1950s and '60s.
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Richard Russo, who grew up in Gloversville, has written a new memoir in which he discusses his hometown. (Photo by Eleina Sebert/Courtesy of Knopf)
Russo's 'Elsewhere' goes on sale Tuesday.
The house at 36 Helwig St., Gloversville, where Richard Russo lived with his mother and grandparents in his youth, is shown earlier this month. (The Leader-Herald/Bill Ackerbauer)
Russo said he started writing the memoir in earnest after she died in 2007.
"When I decided to start writing about Gloversville, the effect of that was to enter her world again," Russo said in a recent telephone interview, speaking with The Leader-Herald from his home in Camden, Maine. "It really opened up the floodgates of memory, and it became more imperative to write. She was in my waking thoughts and also visiting my dreams, and it just seemed ... there was some unfinished business there."
The book is as much about his mother as it is about the writer himself, and Russo says it was she who insisted he leave Gloversville, which had begun to fall on hard times with the decline of the leather industry. His mother faulted not just the community's bad economic luck, but what she perceived as the limited ambition of its occupants.
Russo explains in the book: "She always maintained that her one claim to fame was getting me out of there, away from the shambling, self-satisfied, uncouth, monumentally stupid people who believed they were lucky to live where they did, lucky to have low-paying jobs in the skin mills that starved them and chopped off their fingers and gave them cancer before moving shop to the Third World."
But the acid of such sentiments in the book is tempered by Russo's depiction of his mother as a complicated woman troubled by "nerves," who never seemed comfortable for long, no matter where she lived or with whom.
"The first strong opinion that I as a child can remember was that Gloversville was a dangerous place, that it would trap you if you let it and you had to get out - nothing good could come of staying there," he said. "Now, that may not be true, but it was something that was drilled into me when I was really little."
Russo said he's aware that some hometown readers might take offense at this dark description of the place, but the Gloversville portrayed in "Elsewhere" is the one seen through his mother's eyes, not his own.
He said people should read his fiction for a more balanced view of how he really feels about Gloversville and its denizens.
"If people want to know how I really feel about Gloversville, they should not look at ['Elsewhere'] as the definitive statement," he said. "What they should look at is everything I've written about Gloversville, even when I was calling it 'Thomaston' and 'Empire Falls' and 'Mohawk.' I think it's impossible to read 'Mohawk' and 'The Risk Pool,' 'Nobody's Fool' and 'Bridge of Sighs' without understanding just how deep my affection runs."
The new book's title stems from his mother's love-hate relationship with Gloversville and the family home on Helwig Street, which to her felt like "a cage" while she lived there but beckoned as a familiar haven at other times, when she lived near her son in Arizona, Illinois and Maine.
"There had always been two Gloversvilles for my mother," he said. "That was kind of her gift to me. The paradox of her needing to be elsewhere when she was there and needing to there when she was elsewhere had manifested itself for me but it was just as real."
But instead of literally moving back home from time to time, as his mother did, Russo revisited Gloversville in the pages of his novels.
"Rather than confront my love-hate relationship with my hometown, I simply created other Gloversvilles in my imagination," he writes in "Elsewhere."
He said writing a memoir was, in some ways, more difficult that writing fiction.
"When writing fiction, you start calling Gloversville 'Mohawk' or 'Empire Falls' or 'Thomaston' or something like that, then invention kicks in - in addition to memory, which you always call upon - but there's that wonderful release into invention, where you can take things and make them the way that you want them rather than the way they are. Without the ability to make things up, memory played a much bigger role."
A local following
Though his books have been controversial here, Russo has a loyal following in the Glove Cities.
"We sell his books continually," said Priscilla Mitchell, owner of the Mysteries on Main Street bookstore in Johnstown. "I have to keep his books in stock all the time."
Mitchell said her store already has copies of "Elsewhere," but she can't sell them until the book's official release date, which is Tuesday.
Barbara Madonna, director of the Gloversville Public Library, said Russo's novels are popular with library patrons. "Empire Falls" and "Bridge of Sighs," in particular, seem to stay in constant circulation.
Madonna recalled a time when another writer came to Gloversville specifically to donate autographed copies of his own books to the library.
"He said he wanted his books to be in Richard Russo's hometown library," Madonna said.
The Fulton County intellectual
Russo has inspired many writers who call the Mohawk Valley home.
William Bradley, who lived in Gloversville as a teenager in the 1990s, now teaches English and creative writing at St. Lawrence University in Canton. In correspondence with The Leader-Herald earlier this year, Bradley said Russo's novels, especially his first two, helped set him on his career path.
"I read 'Mohawk' in the spring of 1994, and it had a profound effect on me," Bradley said. "I knew before then that I was interested in writing, but I didn't realize how much material surrounded me - I thought I would either write superhero comic books or have to backpack through Europe for 'inspiration' before I could be a writer. But when I read 'Mohawk,' I felt like I recognized my hometown."
Bradley says he appreciates that some people in Gloversville are sensitive about Russo's depictions of the place.
"I can understand why people might bristle at the suggestion that the town and many who lived there were 'unlucky' - it can sound condescending, and nobody wants to feel pitied. But I do feel like there was a very unique pain inflicted on the community ... I was impressed - and am still impressed - by the town's resilience in the face of such hardship. ... I see that same type of resilience in my favorite Russo characters. Sam Hall and Donald 'Sully' Sullivan have difficult lives, but they retain a work ethic and sense of personal dignity through it all. And, of course, Russo characters always retain a sense of humor even as they struggle."
As critics have pointed out, one of Russo's strengths as a novelist is his ability to write authentically about working-class people.
"For me, Russo represented - and continues to represent - the idea that a 'Fulton County guy' could also be a 'discerning intellectual,'" Bradley said. "More to the point, reading Russo's work as I was trying to find my own writing voice caused me to see the complex beauty that surrounded me, and helped me to realize that daily life in Gloversville was compelling and noteworthy and beautiful and heartbreaking enough to be turned into art."
Half-full or half-empty?
Many longtime Glove Cities residents object to what they perceive as defeatism, whether it's in Russo's fiction or in attitudes expressed by their neighbors. One Gloversville resident has tried to dispel the pessimism with a book of his own.
In 2007, then-City Court Judge Vincent DeSantis published "Toward Civic Integrity: Re-establishing the Micropolis," a treatise spelling out his view of the challenges facing Gloversville and his prescription for overcoming them. DeSantis sent a copy of his book to Russo, encouraging the famous author to adopt a more optimistic outlook about Gloversville.
Russo, who says the two have had "not only cordial but warm" correspondence, read DeSantis' book and agreed with him about certain aspects of civic planning and economy. But while DeSantis' book recalls the heyday of the tanning and glovemaking industries as a golden age, Russo's accuses the mill owners of exploiting workers and devastating the environment.
"What Richard Russo and I disagree on is the nature of Gloversville's past," DeSantis told The Leader-Herald earlier this year. "I have a positive memory of it, and he has a negative one. ... He remembers a lot of negative aspects associated with the leather industry. I argue that those negatives were not particular to Gloversville but typical of mid-20th-century industrial society in general. But the past is gone in spite of the fact that everyone seems to be exclusively focused on it. We need to focus on and envision a future."
DeSantis, who has retired from the bench and is traveling in Europe, said he plans to return to Gloversville armed with ideas gleaned from his experiences overseas and will continue his efforts to energize the community.
"Richard Russo is a brilliant author," DeSantis said in a recent message to The Leader-Herald. "He knows much about the world and human nature, but he doesn't know a thing about Gloversville in 2012. It is entirely possible that we may stay ignorant of our potential and choose not to create a bright future, but if he says that we can't reinvent our community, he's dead wrong."
A feeling of home
Russo acknowledges the information he has about Gloversville is either outdated or comes to him secondhand from relatives in the area, but he said what has happened here over the last century is reflective of the boom-bust-exodus cycle played out in many towns in America.
"Since the guys came home from World War II, and so many of them went to school on the GI Bill and had opportunities elsewhere ... people have gone elsewhere," he said.
But he said people who pull up roots and move away in search of affluence still express a yearning for the kind of simple, close-knit community he benefited from in Gloversville as a youth, where he grew up surrounded by grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. He said he has tried to capture that feeling in his novels.
"There's so much that I love about America and so much that I fear the loss of in America, and it's all right there, it's all in those books. But, strangely, the only time I can see the Gloversville that I love and the Gloversville that I will always be devoted to ... is when I'm writing stories about it, when I'm writing fiction."
While he has lived in Maine for more than a decade, Russo says Camden doesn't feel like home for him the same way Gloversville might feel like home for his relatives who still live here.
"I'm probably never going to have a home in that sense," he said. "I'm never going to feel about any place the way I feel about Gloversville, at least the Gloversville of my novels. For me, the only home I'm ever likely to have, really, when you come right down to it, is the blank page."
But in another sense, he said, home for him is where his wife and daughters and grandchildren are: "Home is where I need to be, not a particular house or a particular town."
Keeping his distance
Russo hasn't set foot in Gloversville in years. In "Elsewhere," he self-diagnoses his anxiety about coming back to his hometown as something akin to the obsessions that plagued his mother.
"I'd love to say this book made me feel better about everything, having gotten it off of my chest, but it's still very difficult for me," he said. "It still feels very raw."
He said on one hand, he would like to return to Gloversville, but he also fears that spending time in the real-life version of the place that has inspired him might "turn the spigot off."
"What if I make my peace with the real place and it turns out that, as a result of that, I'm out of stories? That would be awful."
But Russo says he won't rule out a homecoming. Meanwhile, he's working on a screenplay with Robert Benton, who directed the film version of his book "Nobody's Fool," which starred Paul Newman, and he's also working on a sequel to that novel.
"I'll be back in North Bath very soon," he said. "Which is to say, of course, I'll be in Gloversville."
Features Editor Bill Ackerbauer can be reached at email@example.com.