Look back in anger: Why the comic writer Richard Russo is haunted by his home town

A part of the Pulitzer-winning novelist Richard Russo never left his blue-collar home town, which features in various guises in his fiction. But working on a memoir has stirred up stronger feelings than he'd expected...
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The Independent Culture

When Richard Russo was a child, his father called him by the pet name "strunz". The word was a rare signal of his Italian heritage: before emigrating to upstate New York, Russo's paternal grandparents lived near Rome.

"Years later," he says. "I was watching a Lina Wertmüller movie. One of the characters calls another character 'strunz'. The movie was subtitled. It was then that I learned my father was calling me 'asshole'." Russo bursts into laughter. "It was 'asshole' in the most loving terms."

The story is classic Russo: touching and impolite, funny and slightly melancholy, profoundly personal and somehow universal too. Delivered con brio, it speaks of a man divided between two worlds.

On the one hand, there is Russo, the 61-year-old novelist, academic and screenwriter. His bestselling books include Nobody's Fool, Straight Man, That Old Cape Magic and Empire Falls, which won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize. He has written scripts for Paul Newman, Maggie Smith and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Happily married with two grown daughters, this is the Russo who enjoys foreign movies.

The other Russo is 20 years old. He didn't win the Pulitzer or work with Paul Newman, didn't write a line of fiction or go to college. In fact, this Russo never even left his rural home-town, Gloversville, about 200 miles north of New York City.

"There is another Richard Russo who is still in Gloversville, sitting on a barstool. Someone very different. Someone angrier. Certainly not a writer. I doubt we would like each other very much."

Yet, the two Russos have co-existed for more than 40 years. "After I went to college in Arizona, I came back summers to work road construction with my father. I felt distinctly that there were two people living my life. I returned to a very familiar world, but everything about me had to change – from the way I dressed to the way I spoke. I would be laughed at until I remembered how to talk. By the end of summer, a part of me always said, 'Why go back? What's wrong with this life?'"

Many might ask: what about that life was right? It was defined by gruelling manual labour, narrow horizons in a dying town and a father who called you strunz. For the youthful Russo, this combination of community, banter and graft was precisely the point.

"I enjoyed the work my father and his friends did. At the end of an 11-hour day in 90-degree heat, I enjoyed stopping at half a dozen bars and drinking beer until I could barely stand up."

It's the first Richard Russo whom I meet in London. Dressed in a dapper linen suit, he is the very model of the modern major novelist, talking easily about Hollywood, dashing off assured critiques of Steinbeck, Twain and Dickens, and possessing that infectious but slightly alarming explosion of a laugh.

His younger self is never far behind, however – living on in Russo's imagination, his fiction and now in a "weird memoir", the first part of which has just been published in Granta magazine. Entitled "High and Dry", it examines Russo's complex relationship with Gloversville, and Gloversville's complex relationship with America. "I have written about Gloversville as Mohawk, North Bath, Thomaston and Empire Falls. But suddenly it just seemed important not only to be metaphorically true, the way novels are, but actually to call it by its own name."

Anyone familiar with Russo's picaresque stories about small-town America will recognise the place depicted in his non-fiction portrait. "My novels are impolite – much more like my family and Gloversville. If I had grown up somewhere like Martha's Vineyard, I suspect my writing would have been more polite. I am very happy that it's not."

Situated in the heart of America's "leather belt", Gloversville was internationally famous for making leather goods until the mid-20th century. Its fame lured Russo's paternal grandfather from Italy to try his hand at making shoes. Russo's maternal grandfather was already working as a glove-cutter. "He gave me my first lessons as a writer," Russo recalls. "He would talk about cutting skins and negotiating flaws to make something beautiful. The most important lesson any artist can learn is to recognise that the world is imperfect and that it will not co-operate."

Russo's grandparents reached their prime just in time to witness the beginning of Gloversville's downfall, hastened by changes in fashion, mass production and eventually outsourcing abroad.

Whereas Russo's fiction surveys the results of this decline with humour and pathos, the essay is frequently incensed. Many members of his family worked in the poisonous atmosphere of the local tanneries and skin mills: his grandfather developed the emphysema that would eventually kill him; his cousins bear the scars of working with toxic chemicals to this day. "[The memoir] is very angry," Russo admits. "I hope it is entertaining, but I can feel the rage. These men worked in these mills for the most part without complaint. They were brutalised. They were poisoned. Most are dead or dying. In hot weather, my cousins still have pustules. This is 30 years later and they didn't work there for very long."

Russo is concerned that "High and Dry" could descend into bitterness and pessimism. "I will have to write it sparingly," he says, before citing the example of Mark Twain. "Twain is a warning to comic writers like me, because he did become so bitter about injustices, both intimate and large-scale. Comedy is a way of negotiating these treacherous shoals."

Russo is also aware that he escaped the satanic mills that destroyed his grandparents and cousins. "I got out clean." Instead, the challenges of his formative years were closer to home: the early separation of his parents; his mother's ambivalent relationship with her birthplace; his father's extended absences. "It's really hard to shut our parents up, especially after they die," he says, that laugh barking out once more. "I had some rough years after their separation. Whenever they saw each other they immediately fell into fight mode. Like many children, I thought it must have been my fault."

Russo's father drifts through his fiction as a likable, infuriating and unreliable rogue: for instance, Sully in Nobody's Fool. In "High and Dry", however, it is Russo's mother who takes centre stage – not least as the driving force behind her son's love of literature. "My mother was always working so hard, saving so hard. At the end of a 10-hour day, she always took out a book and read until midnight. That was her greatest gift – teaching me that reading was a primary reward in life. "

Russo's mother also encouraged her son to "flee" Gloversville and go to college – as far away as possible. Indeed, she tagged along for the ride, and like Russo himself, never really went back. It is a paradox of his writing career that having worked so hard to break with his home town, Russo should have devoted so much energy to recreating Gloversville in his writing: his next novel revisits North Bath, the setting for arguably his finest novel, Nobody's Fool.

These towns may be small, he says, but they are the perfect setting for grand narratives about love, work, community, history and class. "I want to explore how people with a lot of money interact with people with no money. That's the great thing about small towns. There are barriers, but the barriers can be circumvented on the street or the school or the coffee shop."

Russo knows that his rambling shaggy dog stories of semi-rural life are sometimes patronised by smart metropolitan critics; he says he was "stunned" when Empire Falls won the Pulitzer. "But if there is a prejudice in critical circles, it is about writers with comic visions: 'They are so entertaining, they can't possibly be important.'"

Russo's reception in Gloversville is also positive – at least for the most part. "My family tell me that I am treated like a favoured son. But there are some people who are deeply resentful about the warts-and-all nature of the stories. And I think others wonder why I'm not around more."

Does he ever worry about exploiting Gloversville for his own creative (and financial) ends? "Yes," he answers gravely. "Always. There is the possibility of disloyalty. I am haunted by the lives of loved ones that I have used – by my father and my grandparents. They have all turned up many times as characters I have elaborated and told lies about." He pauses. "Perhaps the strangest possibility is that you are haunting yourself."

To read an extract from Russo's 'High and Dry', and for a subscription offer to 'Granta' magazine, go to independent.co.uk/books

The extract

That Old Cape Magic, By Richard Russo (Vintage £9.99)

'...By the time Griffin drove back down the Cape and checked into the B and B, it was nearly noon. He brought his travel bag up to the room, leaving the trunk empty except for his father's ashes. He's passed a couple of peaceful, secluded spots, but there'd been a brisk breeze, and he feared that when he opened the urn a strong gust might come up and he'd be wearing his father'