Richard Russo’s ‘Elsewhere’

Narrative risks & rewards in a talky memoir about Mom.

“You do know your mother’s nuts, right?”—Russo’s father to him when he was twenty.

Elsewhere by Richard Russo. Knopf, 243 pp.

From the book's cover. Young Rick Russo and his Mom.

From the book’s cover. Young Rick Russo and his Mom.

Rather dense, slow-moving, and expository, Elsewhere isn’t a memoir I’d make students read. Smoothly written, interestingly structured, a complex portrait of mental illness, love, and lower middle class life in a wretched town, Elsewhere is a book I’d recommend, with caveats, to adults. They must be serious readers, or blessed with at least one difficult parent, or love and hate their hometown, or be writers. For memoirists, Elsewhere offers lessons in narrative structure, in the power of the reflective voice, and in how to blend diction both elegant and conversational.

Richard Russo’s focus is on his mother, who, wherever she was, wanted to be elsewhere. She most especially didn’t want to be stuck in Gloversville, New York, a depressed mill town where she’d grown up and where her son was born and grew up. If that meant following him off to college in Arizona when he graduated high school in 1967, so be it. She suffered from “nerves,” as people called it in that bygone era. When Rick Russo was young, his divorced mother was stubborn, demanding, and resentful. She worsens with age, and gradually one comes to see that this isn’t garden-variety “nerves,” or mere ego, but a shaky defense. She’s barely able to control her anxiety so she tries to control what she can.

Although Elsewhere is largely chronological, there are retrospective explanations and huge narrative leaps in which years and even decades vanish in a scant line. A writer unrolling a story this way for the first time might wonder—Can I do this? Is this possible?—but it works surprisingly well to jump ahead. Readers are hooked on the heart of the story, not on every last daily event, and most surely appreciate confident summary. Russo tells the story very much from “now,” as an adult looking back. We’re in his head more than in the experience of his younger self who lived it. The first true scene doesn’t appear until page twenty-five. The writer’s stance in the present and his reliance on voice as much as on dramatized action have a distancing effect. This made the book less emotionally involving for me even as its appealing sadder-but-wiser narrator lured me onward.

Elsewhere does have a surprising narrative pull. Somehow Russo generates suspense, probably because although we know from the start the book ends with his mother’s death, we crave the story’s particulars. Details tell the world what it lost. Though I can barely remember his mother’s name, Jean—mentioned in stray quotes by family members referring to her—his mother interests because she’s made unique and her suffering and the problems she causes made palpable. Would that Elsewhere’s elusive lessons were as simple as bringing one troubled woman to life. Legions of memoirists and novelists get their work rejected each year for lack of drama, for being boring, while they burn with their stories about difficult parents, divorces, and deaths. “It’s full of details and events!” they cry.

Yeah, but . . .

It was just the two of them—Dad abandoned the family.

It was just the two of them—Dad abandoned the family.

It’s safe to presume that Russo, the author of eight novels and the winner of a Pulitzer prize, knows what he’s doing. While he chooses a rather talky approach—like some other prominent novelists who’ve turned to memoir, he uses it to tell more than to show—he controls all elements of the narrative. And he’s telling an iconic and resonant American story of place and people. From the start, we feel we’re in the hands of a writer who knows what he has to say and where he wants to take us. Those readers who don’t close his memoir in boredom with Jean Russo will follow him. Ultimately they will be impressed by his candor, by the truly hard-earned wisdom of a dutiful, long-suffering, and humanly flawed son. The book becomes moving as Russo becomes more self-protective and then aware of it. Too late he realizes, or finally admits consciously, that his mother suffered from severe, undiagnosed mental illness her whole life.

Aside from his stature, all those other books and that big prize, why does Russo get to tell his story, and rather successfully per his strategy? First, despite memoir’s popularity it’s not unusual to hear people disdain the genre. In large part they can’t get past a very human resentment. My mother was odd too. Why should I read about yours? Agents and publishers who feel this way, but who must scout new memoirs to sell, will read five to fifty pages to see if a writer can overcome their innate reluctance if not repugnance. Is this narcissistic or boring? A writer must do many things right, but there’s no formula—neither the purely scenic approach of many bestsellers nor the tweedy mastery of literary memoirs like Vladimir Nabokov’s and John Updike’s. And of course a manuscript’s reception is influenced by the market, by the author’s stature, and by the reader’s preferences.

Finally the proof is in the reading. The thing must transcend its elements; it must get airborne; it must become art. Elsewhere meets that test.

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20 Comments

Filed under craft, technique, diction or vocabulary, emotion, memoir, narrative, REVIEW, scene, structure, style

20 responses to “Richard Russo’s ‘Elsewhere’

  1. Thanks for this in-depth review. I’ve been curious about this book. I love how there isn’t one “right way” to write a memoir, which unfortunately I don’t think many beginning memoirists are allowed to understand. It might be nice to teach this book, but juxtaposed with a more scene-driven memoir. Let students know there’s a variety and why writers made the choices they did.

    I personally would have found a model like this quite beneficial in the early stages of writing my memoir. I still feel that mine is more “talky” than not.

    • Thanks, Rachael. Elsewhere was inspiring and helpful to me in reaffirming the power and importance of voice. Memoirists are pummeled by the marketplace to be more and more scenic, while the literary world still honors a more balanced or even talky approach. Russo, with his stature, could do as he wished. So many agents would have rejected it by an unknown, I fear, though as I said his confidence and ability surely would have give a few pause. And even big publishers are often looking for a literary work to round out their list of bestsellers.

  2. Very good review, Richard. You grabbed my attention. I don’t read many memoirs, and I’ve never read even any of Russo’s fiction, shame on me, and you not only made me want to read this memoir but also made me wonder what else I’d been missing in the fiction.

    • Thanks, Victoria. I enjoyed Empire Falls, hated the movie made from Nobody’s Fool—Paul Newman just seemed smarmy to me. I know now he was a fictionalization of Russo’s father but still wouldn’t like him!

  3. I’ve read several of Russo’s novels, and grew up not far from Gloversville in a troubled family, so I’d be likely to read this even if I weren’t a memoir writer and teacher myself. I borrowed it from the library, and will read it with more discernment having seen your comments. I’d add one thing to your list of qualities of a good memoir: besides transcendence, becoming airborne and art, it should make the reader like or at least understand the writer. Here’s hoping!

    • Thanks for commenting, Linda. I think you will understand the writer somewhat better—though some reviewers on Amazon didn’t think so; Russo treats that subject with rich implication. His mom made him a reader, he says, and her negative qualities in himself he used to good advantage as a writer. He doesn’t mention in regard to writing what I think was her greatest gift, her focus on him and belief in him as a person, but I think it’s there, apparent in his close relationship with her

  4. Your knowledge of both this genre and of the relationship between reader and story and author goes very deep in this review. It also encourages me on several levels with my own work. I think all writers need to take the “so what” question seriously. There can be a kind of envy on the part of a reader when they read your story. You said it to well: “In large part they can’t get past a very human resentment. My mother was odd too. Why should I read about yours?” I haven’t seen anyone else tackle this idea, but I think it matters more than most writers think, especially if memoir is their first attempt at any book-length form. This kind of “show me” envy also prevents thousands of memoirs from finding a traditional publisher. As you imply, without a Pulitzer Prize, even Russo might not have gotten past the gatekeepers with this one.

    We can’t assume the reader finds our lives as fascinating and unusual as we find them. We have to remember to include them in the story through acknowledging our common-as-mud-existence even as we try to enchant them with difference — an unusually strong life force, for example.

    Another takeaway for me from this excellent review: chronology is okay as an organizing structure and it’s okay not to be scene-driven. Suspense can be created out of desire to know how the reader will tell the story. It doesn’t have to be plot driven. You don’t have to find a book doctor to break up your story into formulaic movie-like structure.

    I put this book on my list for after I finish revisions. Now back to Chapter Ten wherein my eleven-year-old self gets saved in a revival meeting.

    • Shirley, thank you for making further sense of what I was trying to say. I do agree there’s too much knee-jerk emphasis on scene, when most of the enduring memoirs probably are an almost equal blend of telling and showing.

      You have me hooked on yours with that tent revival! How can you lose with that material!? I know, living up to it is the challenge . . .

  5. I’m enjoying your posts and the conversations–so I hit the “like” button, and then thought, “What if he thinks I’m just one of those people who surfs wordpress hitting “like,” to try to increase traffic on my blog?” Actually, I’ve been quietly reading and enjoying your posts for months.

    • Thanks so much for commenting, Tracy Lee (I use both names hoping you are southern and you do!). I actually hit Like a lot myself because often I can’t think of much to say—didn’t know it helps traffic—but you are kind to make yourself known. Thank you for saying you like my post.

      • Not southern, but lived in TN for a while. I go by Tracy Lee, by Tracy, sometimes by Trace. I don’t much like to be called “Hey You.” And no one except my grandmother gets to call me Lee-Lee.

  6. Judy

    Richard–Two thoughts while reading your excellent review of Elsewhere. I was struck by the notion of how similiar Russo’s story is to mine, and then, when you then said he was a Pulitizer author, I felt struck down-my heart sank. How can I compete with that?
    My second thought was how long I’ve struggled with my memoir about my mother, writing it a way, so no one will look at it and say, “who cares?” I believe as writers we must constantly wrestle with that demon of balancing our need to tell our story to readers who have experienced the same kind of mother/upbringing/relationship, etc., for example, that they will see the power of not only my story, but the power in telling it. I continue to struggle with both. Your review is grabbing my attention in significant ways. Thank you and am calling my library to reserve the book!

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Judy. I wish I had an answer. But I can throw out some thoughts. First, writing as an art is a pure good. Legions of retirees with art talent they never expressed fully take up painting and, usually with some instruction, become artists. I find that wonderful and inspiring. In a way, even someone writing for publication must mirror that purity and that real accomplishment.

      The “Who cares?” test is a tough one, because publishing’s gatekeepers can be harsh, even with works of merit and art. I could not believe more deeply in personal stories, so for me it’s the intent and the execution that determine whether something is worthy of publication and a wider audience. Intent varies, of course, and it can be deeply personal and never explained, but it cannot spring from base reasons (like revenge or pure ego). If a writer is using structure and all the myriad other tools of prose, s/he has to be moving in the right direction, toward a story that is vivid and specific. This makes people read about a death or a divorce.

      Yet writers often have blind spots, maybe all do. A good writing posse of diverse readers is vital for meaningful feedback. (Even obtuse readers can be helpful accidentally.) And then a cold-eyed hired gun may be needed: a developmental editor who offers more expertise and speaks, in effect, for professional writers, readers, agents, editors, and publishers. I have hired several in my journey toward book publication and each helped, one in a transformative sense. Once a writer has more experience and has internalized a great deal, bringing in the pros may not be necessary. But it is very common at all stages of craft.

  7. A thoughtful, balanced review, written with your usual command. I don’t think this is a memoir for me, but reading YOU is always worthwhile.

  8. I’m too curious not to read it. Great review, Richard.

  9. I read Elsewhere and thought it was excellent. Your review is point on. I love it when you say readers of Russo’s memoir must be “serious readers, or blessed with at least one difficult parent, or love and hate their hometown, or be writers.” I fit all 4 qualifications. But I also love that you talk about the lessons memoir writers can learn from Russo: “Elsewhere offers lessons in narrative structure, in the power of the reflective voice, and in how to blend diction both elegant and conversational.” Insightful review, Richard. Thanks.

    • Susan, it’s such a relief to have another reader affirm my impressions. One always wonders a bit if his take is just personal or idiosyncratic. Glad too you admire the book.