Friday, February 26, 2016

"A man his mother" book review

This is on my

Oct. 12, 2015 "A man his mother": I cut out this article by Philip Marchand in the National Post on Dec. 1, 2012.  Here it is:

Richard Russo’s memoir, Elsewhere, primarily concerns his mother, but at the beginning and the end of the narrative, another character holds centre stage, and that is the town of Gloversville. It is a community that has appeared and reappeared under different names — Mohawk, Empire Falls — in various Russo novels, the prototype of his decayed towns in upstate New York or Maine, the once-proud cities whose industries have failed and whose dreams of renewed prosperity border on sheer desperation.

“In its heyday,” Russo writes of Gloversville, “nine out of ten dress gloves in the United States were manufactured there.” In the 1950s, in Russo’s memory, it was still thriving. Crowds jostled each other in the streets of downtown Gloversville. And then, almost overnight, foreign competition destroyed all that. “Crappy, Asian-made gloves showed up in the shops, where a few buttons could be sewn on and the gloves stamped MADE IN GLOVERSVILLE,” Russo writes. His maternal grandfather, a highly skilled glove maker, saw his craft debased not only by these imports but by new procedures such as chrome tanning, which sped up the tanning process and incidentally made the workplace more hazardous.

Russo’s mother, Jean, divorced from a husband who had some bad habits, chiefly gambling, lived with her son in a flat they rented from her parents. She had a good job with the General Electric Company in Schenectady, but was chronically short of money for expenses, such as the ride to and from work, the clothes necessary for her office job, the grocery bills and so on. She was fanatical about contributing money for gas when others drove, and was in all ways resolved to keep up appearances — making sure her son had clean, crisply ironed clothing to wear every day, for example, even if it meant doing laundry until midnight. “She kept the narrative of our lives consistent and intact,” Russo recalls. “We, the two of us, were all we needed. As long as we had each other, we’d be fine.”

Russo shows his own narrative skill in revealing only very gradually the deep distress of the situation. At first, the mother’s determination to assert her independence seems admirable — not always reasonable, but not delusional, either. But from time to time, his mother experiences an attack of “nerves,” then considered an affliction peculiar to the female sex. They are emotional meltdowns. “Whatever was wrong or out of balance would grow slowly until suddenly everything in the world was wrong, and utter panic would ensue,” Russo writes. The morning afterwards, it seems, her equilibrium would return. “Last night, after you went to bed, I gave myself a good talking-to,” she would say — a comment that did not reassure the boy.

The turning point occurs when Russo, newly admitted to the University of Arizona, buys a grey 1960 Ford Galaxie — nicknamed by his friends Gray Death — for the trip to Arizona, with his mother, who has obtained a job at the General Electric plant in Phoenix, in tow. The Gray Death is hardly up for the long ride. “I would own worse cars, but never another in which you could slam the accelerator to the floor and nothing, absolutely nothing would happen,” Russo writes. To make matters worse, Gray Death must pull a U-Haul with his mother’s possessions.

The trip out West is comic and harrowing, with the Gray Death’s motor constantly overheating and the manoeuvring on and off highway ramps nearly creating multiple car crashes. Somehow they manage to complete the trip, however. And then the worst part befalls them. It turns out Jean Russo does not have a job with General Electric — or with any firm. She had merely assumed, from casual compliments made by her colleagues, that her fellow General Electric employees would of course recognize her worth. GE people looked out for one another, is her credo — a belief that any objective historian of that company would regard as a tad overstated. In fact, there is no job for her in Phoenix. Worse, as time goes on, partly because of all the medications she uses, such as phenobarbital, she becomes virtually unemployable. “Who’s going to hire someone who can’t hold her hands still,” Russo’s wife asks. (He had married when he was a graduate student.)

From this point onward, the story of Russo’s mother becomes an unrelieved tale of sorrow. “She needed me, at least emotionally, all the time,” Russo writes. Russo, now an academic with all the responsibilities that entails, and liable to move from one university to another, and working (unsuccessfully) on his fiction as well — “I wrote about crime and cities and women and other things I knew very little about,” he confesses — could hardly fulfill this need.

Still, his mother stayed close, following his trail. “She’d never really considered us two separate people but rather one entity, oddly cleaved by time and gender, like fraternal twins somehow born 25 years apart,” Russo comments. Labouring under this misconception, his mother moves from one apartment to another, sometimes in order to be physically closer to her son, sometimes because she finds something intolerably wrong with the one she currently occupies. Sometimes, she longs for the comforts of her childhood home, the idyllic security of her parents’ house — but the moment she moves back to Gloversville, she finds it a cage, a prison, a backwater, and demands to be set free.

Whether in Pennsylvania or Illinois or Maine — wherever her son happens to be and wherever she moves to be close to him — her cry is the same. “It’s you I need,” goes that cry. “It’s terrible here.”

After her death, a doctor informs Russo that his late mother suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, a diagnosis that explains her bizarre behaviours such as a hatred for the colour yellow. It is obviously a great relief for him to know, when one of his two adult daughters comes down with the same symptoms, that treatment is now available.

But questions remain. Is it true, as Russo claims, that he inherited much of his mother’s obsessiveness, but that he was able to harness it to his writing and turn a negative, as it were, into a positive? “The evidence was everywhere,” Russo declares, citing two periods of his life when he surrendered his life to a pinball machine and to dog track racing. But he managed to parlay what he considered to be genetic traits inherited from his mother — “stubbornness, defiance, an inclination to obsess, an excess of will, a potentially dangerous need to see things my own way” — into a “rich and fruitful career.”

Some of these traits, such as stubbornness, can certainly be useful, as long as they are not totally closed to reason. Others, such as an inclination to obsess, are unmitigated liabilities. What saved Russo was not so much some combination of these traits as simply his large endowment of imagination and storytelling ability — qualities that open up the mind where obsession narrows it. Had he less imagination and storytelling ability, he would likely have been doomed regardless of the potential for good use of certain of his genetic traits.

What his mother certainly did bequeath him was a love of reading, a love that stood him in good stead despite his mother’s taste for authors such as Daphne du Maurier and Mary Stewart, the kind of writers often regarded as “lady trash.” Russo comments: “Though I’d outgrown her books, they had a hand in shaping the kind of writer I’d eventually become — one who, unlike many university-trained writers, didn’t consider plot a dirty word, who paid attention to audience and pacing, who had little tolerance for literary pretension.”

Russo also possesses another authorial trait unusual in literary circles — what he calls his “hard-won optimism.” How he managed to acquire that, the reader can only guess.

One question Russo does not raise is the question of whether the industrial misery of Gloversville tanning mills — a misery vividly evoked toward the end of the memoir — did not possibly aggravate people’s cases of “nerves.” Although his mother was not directly affected by the more gruesome aspects of life in Gloversville tanneries, she might nevertheless have been susceptible to all the toxins — chemical and psychological — spewed around by the tanning mills. Those mills fostered a way of life that could easily drive people insane.

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