Some mothers have become famous for their obsessive connection to their sons; Sara Delano Roosevelt, for example, in her relationship to her adored Franklin. But the bond that existed between NY Times best-selling author Richard Russo and his mother extended a lifetime and beyond the physical severing of the umbilical cord at birth. In reality, the emotional and psychological attachment to her son was this single mother’s lifeline.
Unable to tolerate more than a few hours or few miles separation from him, she found her comfort level, and her very sanity, dependent on her proximity to him. So begins the story of the intricate and ongoing waltz between them, even after his marriage, with his mother following in her son’s footsteps wherever his career took him. Unaware of his mother’s crippling personality disorder, he supports her often irrational jolts through life, thus unwittingly becoming her enabler. “Elsewhere: A Memoir” is a fascinating story of a son’s devotion to his dysfunctional parent and her singularly abnormal dependence on him.
Storytelling is an art, and Richard Russo is a masterful storyteller, particularly in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Empire Falls.” Its locale is typical of other Russo novels, an old mill town, waters polluted by wealthy, exploitative factory owners who have drained the town and its inhabitants dry before moving on to greener pastures. It this case it is the Whiting family; and as in some of Russo’s other novels, the setting itself becomes a major character, as if personified and peopled by all the offbeat or eccentric individuals found in such a place. No one captures the essence is small town America better than Richard Russo.
The main character is Miles Robey, who, despite his mother Grace’s most fervent efforts and wishes, has never made it out of Empire Falls where he seems eternally stuck in this dead-end job of managing a local diner owned by, of course, a Whiting family member. Actually, the Whiting family has played a significant role throughout Miles’ entire life, some of which is a mystery it will take him a lifetime to figure out. There are secrets here, as well as passion, infidelity, loveless marriages, disappointment, dashed hopes, revenge and retribution — all played out in this predominantly blue collar backwater.
In addition, there is plenty of clever irony as well as some laugh-out-loud funny scenes. In one, there is an elderly, senile parish priest who has absconded with the Sunday mass collection, along with Miles’ derelict, shiftless, and irresponsible dad with whom Miles has an uneasy relationship. The priest is seen hearing the confessions of drunken patrons at one end of a seedy bar in, of all places, Key West, where the pair has fled after stealing the rectory car. Russo weaves a very intriguing and entertaining novel with myriad characters whose lives intersect and overlap through multiple generations, culminating in a shockingly gruesome ending.
“Empire Falls” is the type of place the author knows only too well; unlike Miles Robey, Russo managed to go beyond its narrow and limiting perimeters. He deserved to — his talent as a write was his ticket out.
Donna DeLeo Bruno is a native Bristolian and a retired teacher of writing and literature. She now splits her time between Bristol and Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., where she gives book reviews at the local library as well as at book clubs and women’s clubs. Some of her most enjoyable and relaxing hours are spent reading a book beneath the shade of a tree at the foot of Walley Street with the sun sparkling its reflection on the water.