On Helwig Street, By Richard Russo

Mother-and-son road trip driven by all-American dream to escape

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The Independent Culture

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.