Inspired by the working-class, upstate New York town where he spent his boyhood, Richard Russo has written some of his best novels about spirited characters whose lives are influenced by economic hardship, domestic strife and other forces that aren't entirely under their control. At this, he's been fantastically successful: "Empire Falls," a 2001 novel set in a weary mill town, earned him a Pulitzer Prize, and a screen adaptation of the book marked the third time one of Russo's characters was played by Paul Newman.
His mother is the dominant figure in Russo's sweetly sad memoir "Elsewhere," and, fittingly, she seems to have stepped from the pages of one of her son's hardscrabble narratives.
Russo's was an "American childhood, as lived in the Fifties by a lower-middle class that seems barely to exist anymore," he says, and though his father wasn't around much, he and his mother, Jean, got by: "Her job at GE in Schenectady paid well; before taxes she made just over a hundred dollars a week."
When Russo headed to college in Arizona in the late 1960s, Jean, looking for a change of scenery, tagged along. His recollection of their cross-country trip, in an aging Ford Galaxie that Russo and his friends had dubbed the Gray Death is one of the book's funnier set pieces. (They pulled a U-Haul, and often, when driving uphill, "there was nothing to do but watch the speedometer inch backward -- 20, 18, 15, 11 -- until finally our forward momentum wouldn't even register at all.")
As Russo married, started a family, took his first university teaching jobs and established himself as a novelist and occasional screenwriter, Jean was rarely far from his side. A contrarian, she was pleased, if puzzled, by his achievements, Russo says: "From various comments she let drop, I knew she was deeply mystified by how many people apparently wanted to read stories set in the kind of industrial backwaters from which she'd worked so hard to escape."
Much of "Elsewhere" is concerned with the emotional turmoil that colored Jean's life. Gently but forthrightly, Russo describes a woman who "was lost in some labyrinth of her own thoughts and impulses." Noting her unusual relationships with food, odors and household trash, he came to believe after his mother's death that she might have suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder.
As a character study, Russo's portrait of his mother is rich and layered. Though he might have spent more time discussing colorful episodes from his own life -- he says that for a time he helped pay his bills by working as a restaurant crooner; let's hope he writes more about this in the future -- Russo's memoir is an honest book about a universal subject: those familial bonds that only get trickier with time.
Kevin Canfield is a writer and critic in New York.