Elsewhere is not so much a Richard Russo memoir as it is the author’s frank recounting of life with his mother, a woman for whom he pretty much took responsibility while still in high school. As Russo puts it in the book’s prologue, “What follows in this memoir – I don’t know what else to call it – is a story of intersections: of place and time, of private and public, of linked destinies and flawed devotion. It’s more my mother’s story than mine, but it’s mine, too, because until just a few years ago she was seldom absent from my life.” The key word in this explanation is “flawed,” because, as Elsewhere makes clear, the author allowed his mother’s undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder largely to define his own existence, even after he married and was raising a family of his own.
As he begins to describe his childhood in Gloversville, New York, readers of his fiction will recognize that the upper state tannery town provides the basic setting of much of Russo’s fiction. But Gloversville, once a proud producer of high quality leather products, was already in decline by the time Russo’s 1950s childhood began. By then, automation and cheap foreign labor - along with the negative environmental impact associated with the tanning of leather – was killing both the town and some of its citizens.
The anxiety condition that Russo’s mother lived with all her life went undiagnosed. Everyone around her, including the husband who left her when Richard was just a boy, found her impossible to live with, but more often than not, they wrote off her behavior as just a bad case of “nerves.” Russo, to his great credit, assumed primary responsibility for his mother from the moment she decided to follow him across the country to Arizona to begin his college career. This would not be the last time Mrs. Russo changed addresses because her son did. She would do so for the rest of her life.
One gets the sense from reading Elsewhere (some ideal spot only in his mother’s mind where she could finally live the life she deserved), that Russo still does not realize how great a personal sacrifice he made for her all those years. He readily admits that, despite all he did for her, he feels that he failed his mother by accepting her condition as an untreatable one – a passive approach, he tells us, that he has taken with no other problem he has ever encountered.
The bad news here is that Elsewhere is not the memoir most Richard Russo fans were expecting or hoping for; the good news is that this one leaves a lot for Russo to tell in a second memoir.