Friday, November 23, 2012

Book Review--Elsewhere

I have read all but one of Richard Russo's nine books.  Books like Bridge of Sighs, the Risk Pool, Nobody's Fool, and The Whore's Child (the latter a collection of short stories) are on my top shelf in terms of good reads. Russo's newest, Elsewhere, is billed as a memoir.  When I saw that it had been published, I bought the book and just finished it yesterday afternoon.

When you read authors' works you, or at least I, develop a notion of the kind of person they might be.  Elsewhere changed the notion I'd had about Russo.  While it is billed as a "memoir", the focus of the book is not on Russo so much as Russo's life with his mother. Given the nature of their relationship, it would have been difficult to write a personal memoir without his mother being central to it.

Clearly, it seems to me, and I judge this not primarily by some remarks he made in the Acknowledgments but because of the whole of the book, his mother was, and even in death now, is central to his life in a way that is greater than most mothers are central to their children's lives.Russo's mother was nothing like mine. Russo's mother was beyond quirky--contrary, very very clingy, needy, and well difficult.  From the time he left for college--with his mother going right along with him-until her death, the two were tethered and he was her life support.  In the book, Russo does not complain about his plight; in fact he portrays his mother as sympathetically as a man would who, in some ways, was nourished himself by the relationship despite the enormous draining effect it had on his life. It is unbelievable to me that someone could write a masterpiece like Bridge of Sighs and yet need to continuously jump when the phone rang and rush to the rescue of something that needed no immediate attention.

Russo's  father left when he was a kid and does not factor into this book much at all.  I found it a bit strange that the father who is likely the inspiration for the narrator's favorably depicted if irreverent dad in The Risk Pool is rarely part of this story. It's surprising not so much that the father and mother had no connection after the marriage ended, but  that since the burden was heavy and constant on his son, there was no attempt at intervening for the kid's behalf.

Russo comes across in this book as a man who has a hole in his heart because of something big missing as a kid.  From his novels, I had a sense that he had his life very much together.  Yet, I don't think he does.  Nobody does really, but at the end of this book I felt as if Russo had hoped that the writing would have provided some closure for him and ease of pain.  It does not seem that way to me.  He is still at sea as it relates to his mother and lives with a deep emotional bruise which I did not sense from the way he humorously and brilliantly writes his novels.

Do I recommend this?  Well it is a depressing read and I am not sure there is anything that comes to a conclusion or take away other than to know that we all have tsuris even those who might seem to be unaffected.  Before I read this book,  I thought of Russo as a mensch who had an insightful perspective on human interaction. I still feel this way, perhaps more so, but I also know that he is not as carefree and unaffected as I imagined him to be.

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