On Helwig Street, By Richard Russo
Mother-and-son road trip driven by all-American dream to escape
Friday 22 February 2013
Pulitzer-prize winning novelist, Richard Russo is best known for his portraits of blue-collar small-town life. In these absorbing memoirs, he recalls his own experiences of a hardscrabble 1950s childhood and his relationship with his complicated mother, Jean.
Gloversville, a depressed manufacturing town in the foothills of the Adirondacks, has often appeared in fictional guise in the author's novels. It was here that Russo and his single mother shared a two-family house with his grandparents on Helwig Street. "Happy as a clam" in his grade-school years, it was only later that Russo started to tune into his mother's volatile emotional force-field. Attractive and "as likeable as all get out", Jean "liked men, liked being among them", but had ended up married to a gambler. Sometime after the divorce Russo's father offered up his version of events: "You do know your mother's nuts, right?" It was a no-frills assessment that brought the young Russo more solace than pain.
In this all-American tale of reinvention, both mother and son were bent on escape. While Jean encouraged her "Ricko-Mio", to pursue his dreams of becoming a writer, she held down a job at General Electric. But when Ricko won a place at the University of Arizona, she announced that she too would be going West.
So begins the main body of the book, as mother and son embark on a road-trip that will be repeated several times over as Jean continues to follow her son from one posting to the next. Despite their twinned destinies, Russo feels terrible guilt. In Fifties-speak Jean Russo's malaise is described as "nerves", but as the memoirs progress, Russo begins to wonder how far he has acted as his mother's enabler, allowing her to mask various personality disorders instead of seeking out help.
On Helwig Street is a highly readable period piece, although at times Russo's genial tone strikes a suspiciously sunny note – the sacrifices that his own young family made to accommodate such a needy matriarch are never satisfactorily addressed.
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Andreas Lubitz: Who is Germanwings co-pilot who 'locked out captain and crashed flight 9525'?
- 2 JK Rowling responds to fan tweeting she 'can't see' Dumbledore being gay
- 3 Germanwings crash: Descent may have been 'deliberate, suicidal choice' by pilot, claims experts
- 4 Germanwings plane crash live: Andreas Guenter Lubitz intentionally crashed flight 9525 into the Alps in act of mass murder and suicide – latest
- 5 Video shows what happens when lava is poured onto ice
Jeremy Clarkson to host BBC's Have I Got News For You despite Top Gear exit
Jeremy Clarkson says it 'isn't hard' to create another Top Gear
James May hints Top Gear days are over following Jeremy Clarkson's BBC suspension
Mark Gatiss on playing 'prince of darkness' Peter Mandelson in Channel 4's Coalition
James May hints he will not continue on Top Gear without Jeremy Clarkson
Nigel Farage brands LGBT activists 'filth' and 'scum' and accuses them of scaring away his children after they invade his local pub
Ukip supporters are 55 or older, white and socially conservative, finds British Social Attitudes Report
JK Rowling responds to fan tweeting she 'can't see' Dumbledore being gay
Russia threatens Denmark with nuclear weapons if it tries to join Nato defence shield
Jeremy Clarkson sacked live: Alan Yentob 'wouldn't rule out' ex Top Gear host's BBC return
Council tenant wins right not to be sent to Milton Keynes