Richard Russo sits in his elderly mother's home, holding her hand. She's just been diagnosed with dementia, one more illness to add to the long list of ailments she's been battling for years. She wonders aloud whether she'll ever be able to read again, plainly scared at the prospect of a life without her favorite hobby. She takes a look around her small apartment, and tells her son that she hates it.
"I just wish you could be happy, Mom," he says, heartbroken. "I used to be," she responds. "I know you don't believe that, but I was."
It's the most utterly melancholy moment in a memoir full of them, a book in search of a happy ending that will never come. There are instances of joy in Richard Russo's Elsewhere, but they are rare and tempered by the knowledge that sometimes things just don't get better. This story is a tragedy, and it is as unrelentingly sad as it is beautiful.
Elsewhere chronicles Russo's relationship with his mother from his childhood in the decaying mill town of Gloversville, N.Y., to her death decades later, after she's lived through countless unhappy years, wracked by untreated and severe mental illness. Russo's mother, unable to hold down a job and stuck in a long spiral of despair, considered him her "rock" and followed him and his family from town to town. The book is less a memoir than, in Russo's words, "a story of intersections: of place and time, of private and public, of linked destinies and flawed devotion."
That description could fit any of Russo's novels as well, and the prose and depth of feeling that made those books so unforgettable are unmistakably present in Elsewhere. Those who have read Nobody's Fool will recognize Gloversville as the inspiration for North Bath, all dying elm trees, dilapidated storefronts, and blue-collar workers who refuse to yield to the slow death of the American manufacturing industry. Russo writes in the same steadfastly plainspoken tone that he's always employed — in one passage unlikely to go over well in towns like, say, Iowa City, he slams "university-trained writers" who "consider plot a dirty word" and who indulge in "literary pretension."
As brilliant as his novels like Straight Man and Empire Falls are, however, Russo's straightforward writing style is even more effective in Elsewhere. Betraying some of the anger he felt toward his mother's constant presence in his life, he admits that "there were times I seriously considered wringing her neck." His anger later turns inward, after his mother's death, when he learns the mental illness that made her so constantly miserable could have been diagnosed and treated. He realizes, too late, that it didn't have to be that way — but of course it doesn't matter. It was that way, and no amount of wishful thinking will bring her, and the town he grew up in and loved, back.
And that's how the book ends — just like life, without any satisfying answers, with a narrator stuck between defiance and resignation. Russo's intellectual and emotional honesty are remarkable, especially in the memoir's final pages. The optimistic realism that marks his fiction is absent here — given a chance to absolve himself, he hands down an indictment instead. Given a chance to indulge in a feel-good kind of hope, he rejects it — the story ends where it has to, in a place utterly devoid of easy redemption.
If Elsewhere sounds bleak, that's because it is. But it's also one of the most honest, moving American memoirs in years. "Most people are trapped in a solitary existence, a life circumscribed by want and failures of imagination," Russo writes. Literature, he says, can free us from that prison, and it's true — but we carry that solitude and those unmet desires with us the rest of our lives. It's not an easy burden, of course, but it's honest, and real, and in its own way, beautiful. Toward the end of their decades together, Russo and his mother might have known this. The rest of us, maybe, never will.