Without ever quite advertising the fact, On Helwig Street is a version of the American Dream. Or rather, two intermingled versions of it. One is that archetypal hankering of the bright college kid fixated on literature to become a writer. The other – equally heartfelt, but less flexible – is his mother's keenness on the idea of a free and independent life. On the evidence set out here, the first succeeds and the second fails, but not without inflicting a huge amount of damage – practical, emotional and even moral – on the person charged with bringing it about.
Richard Russo defines his early years as "an American childhood, as lived in the Fifties, by a lower-middle class that barely seems to exist any more". His juvenile stamping ground is Gloversville in upstate New York, a town lately at the centre of the East Coast leather trade and now in sharp decline. Overseas labour and changing dress styles are undermining the local craftsmen; the traffic recedes from the thoroughfares, and, by the time the 18-year-old graduates from high school, "you could have strafed Main Street with an automatic weapon without endangering a soul".
All this is of markedly less interest to Russo than his highly strung and domineering mother, Jean, the racket made by whose "condition" clangs through his childhood like a leper bell. "You do know your mother's nuts, right?" his soon-estranged father rhetorically demands. Young(ish), free (up to a point) and single, already a martyr to barbiturates and Valium, Jean alternates delight in her prestige job at General Electric with the oft-expressed conviction that "Ricko-Mio" should light out into the real world at the earliest opportunity. What her son hasn't bargained for is that, on his receipt of a place at the University of Arizona, mom would decide to come along too.
The Arizona relocation, a 2,000-mile road trip undertaken in a car the teenager can barely drive, is the book's great set piece. Mom, meanwhile, is fast imploding: the job at GE's Phoenix branch she has supposedly fixed up turns out to be the merest moonshine. Equilibrium is restored, but by this stage the pattern is set. Henceforth, wherever Russo goes in pursuit of an academic job that will give him time to write, Jean tags along, always hating the places she fetches up in, frequently returning to Gloversville and hating that too, ruining every restaurant visit, and placing such a strain on her son's marriage that towards the end of her life he wonders "when in the last 35 years ... had we ever had the luxury of making a major decision purely on its merits?".
On Helwig Street, consequently, is the story of an accommodation – the untenable loyally maintained through four decades and countless changes of address – and, ultimately, a diagnosis. Jean, her hereditary flaw posthumously revealed by a granddaughter's trouble with laptops, is an obsessive-compulsive, and Russo her enabler.
Returning to Gloversville after her death, on a commission from Granta, Russo decides that the fictional towns of such novels as The Bridge of Sighs "are no better or worse than the real one. They're just mine ...". Nervy, meticulously observed, still straining towards its judgements even as the final chapter ends, this is a small masterpiece.