The celebrated best-selling novelist recalls his late mother’s powerful, often frustrating influence on his life and work.
Fans of Russo’s fiction (That Old Cape Magic, 2009, etc.) likely know that the model for his novels’ working-class Northeast settings is Gloversville, N.Y., a factory town that fell on hard times in the 1960s. The author escaped his hometown when he went to college, but not without some company: His mother joined him as they drove to Arizona, and she’d rarely be far from him in the decades that followed. Russo describes how his life decisions were often limited by the need to accommodate his mother’s particular needs and, later, debilitating illness: One of the book’s most powerful chapters describes the author’s mother as her dementia begins to set in, fussing over a clock as if the device itself had the power to control time. (What his extended family and estranged father called “nerves” was likely a severe case of obsessive-compulsive disorder.) Though she routinely made her son’s life more difficult, this book isn’t borne out of bitterness, yet he doesn’t place his mother in soft focus either. What Russo strives to do is place his mother’s life in a social, cultural and personal context. He explores how her options were limited as a single mother in the ’60s, as a product of a manufacturing culture that collapsed before her eyes, and as a woman who needed to define herself through other men. That Russo found the time and emotional space to write novels is somewhat miraculous given her demands, but he acknowledges he couldn’t have written them without her. He inherited her sense of place as well as her compulsive personality, and this book contains much of the grace and flinty humor of his fiction.
An affecting yet never saccharine glimpse of the relationship among place, family and fiction.