Elsewhere by Richard Russo


  Still, did the fact that my mother was more like her mother than she cared to admit mean that I was more like mine than I cared to? Did the fact that I occasionally had more sympathy for and insight into my mother’s behavior than, say, my wife, who was justifiably weary of it, suggest that I was like my mother, as she always so confidently claimed, or simply that I’d been observing her longer? The latter, surely. For compelling evidence I needed to look no farther than the book in my hand. I opened Hotel du Lac and read the first page:

  From the window all that could be seen was a receding area of grey. It was to be supposed that beyond the grey garden, which seemed to sprout nothing but the stiffish leaves of some unfamiliar plant, lay the vast grey lake, spreading like an anaesthetic towards the invisible further shore, and beyond that, in imagination only, yet verified by the brochure, the peak of the Dent d’Oche, on which snow might already be slightly and silently falling. For it was late September, out of season; the tourists had gone, the rates were reduced, and there were few inducements for visitors in this small town at the water’s edge, whose inhabitants, uncommunicative to begin with, were frequently rendered taciturn by the dense cloud that descended for days at a time.

  What in the world had possessed me to think my mother would enjoy a book that began like this? “Grey” was used three times in the first two sentences to describe the physical landscape, and my mother’s interior landscape was gray already. Her purpose in reading was to flee that grayness into a brighter, more colorful world. She loved for books to take her to exciting new places, and she might well have enjoyed a novel set in a swank Swiss hotel on a lake, but she never would’ve wanted to go there out of season at reduced rates after all the interesting people had left. I’d taught the novel at Colby the year before, so its narrative details were still fresh in my mind. The protagonist was a middle-aged writer named Edith Hope, who, unlike Anita Brookner, wrote the kind of romance novels my mother might actually have liked to read. At the hotel Edith meets a man named Neville, who makes her an insulting proposal of marriage, not a love match but a union of convenience that will allow each of them societal “cover” as well as romantic freedom. Lest she reject the unflattering offer out of hand, Neville rather cruelly adds that given Edith’s age and rather plain appearance (in her cardigan sweaters she resembles Virginia Woolf), she’s unlikely to get a better one.

  My Colby students, an otherwise pretty savvy bunch, had immediately identified Neville as the novel’s villain, ignoring the more subtle, lifelong cruelty Edith had suffered at the hands of her mother and female friends, the very ones who’d packed her off to Switzerland after she fell in love and made a fool of herself back in London. My female students—all in their early twenties—were particularly unwilling to acknowledge the grim possibility that Neville’s offer might in fact be the best Edith would ever get, and they were of one voice in proclaiming that she should reject his cynical proposal and wait for love. If their male classmates thought differently, they held their tongues, suggesting just how thorough the cultural training of the late Eighties had been for both genders.

  That, I now recalled, was why I’d given the book to my mother in the first place, because she’d gotten her cultural training in an upstate New York mill town four decades earlier, and I was curious to see if she’d twig to what my female students had ignored. The results of this experiment had been both gratifying and dispiriting. My mother hadn’t really enjoyed the book and certainly didn’t want to read any more Brookner, but just as I suspected the novel’s theme of women’s cruelty to women had resonated deeply, and her identification with poor Edith Hope, while not wholehearted, had been sufficient to initiate one of her diatribes against her own mother and sister, who had done their level best, she reminded me, to undermine her at every turn and might ultimately have succeeded in destroying her self-confidence if she hadn’t escaped Gloversville when she did. The choice Edith had to make didn’t particularly interest her. The solution—as my mother saw it—was to return next year, in season, with a better wardrobe, so she’d likely meet a better class of man. She saw Neville as less of a villain than a nonentity.

  All of which was, though I hadn’t foreseen it, an entirely predictable response. In truth my mother had always been suspicious of women. If there were two lines at the bank or the post office, she’d invariably queue up in the man’s, even if the woman’s was shorter. The more important the circumstance—to purchase a money order, say, or pay a bill—the more determined she was to wait. If a new window opened and she was asked by a female clerk if she could be of service, my mother would smile and say, “Thank you, but I’ll just wait for the man,” as if this were perfectly reasonable, as if hers was the well-established and undeniable preference of both genders. Of course in those days the man was more likely to be senior, but it wasn’t that so much as the fact that my mother always did better dealing with men. She was attractive, and men often fell all over themselves trying to help her out. If she made a mistake in filling out a form, they’d produce a new one and correct the error themselves, where a woman might’ve sent her away with fine-print instructions.

  But it went deeper than that. The whole time I was growing up, I never knew my mother to have a female friend. There was one woman, a coworker at GE, whom she was close to for a time, until they had a falling-out over what my mother claimed was a betrayal—the other woman getting a promotion my mother had assumed would be hers. This was a pattern that would repeat itself again and again over the next several decades. She’d meet a woman her age, usually at a new job, and they’d discover they had interests in common; a tentative friendship would develop, one that seemed destined to evolve into emotional intimacy, but then something bad would happen. Whether it was friction on the job, or that they’d become interested in the same man, things always ended with my mother feeling backstabbed. She must’ve been as frequently disappointed by men as she was by women, but she treated these as individual, indeed isolated, cases. Often, when she looked back on a failed romantic relationship, she blamed herself, admitting that all the signs had been there and she’d just been too blind, too taken in, to see through his charm, whereas when a woman disappointed her, all women were to blame, and her resolution not to waste her time on female friendships grew much stronger. That was why I was reluctant for her to so easily surrender her friendship with Dot, her Winslow friend. Their camaraderie had lasted quite a while, and I’d begun to wonder if the relationship’s longevity might represent a breakthrough.

  But perhaps not. As her reaction to Hotel du Lac had demonstrated, her distrust of women was deep-seated. While she must have realized that Brookner, at least thematically, was a potential soul mate, that didn’t matter. Though she’d understood the novel far better than anyone in my class, she’d disliked it every bit as much, if for the exact opposite reason. Because it had challenged a received feminist truth about female solidarity, my students had concluded that Brookner was lying to them about the world. Whereas my mother disliked the book precisely because she was being told the truth. That wasn’t what she read fiction for.

  Indeed, the books I’d spent the afternoon packing—so varied in genre, including historical romances, detective novels, romantic thrillers, travel books—had in common a reassuring conventionality that couldn’t entirely be accounted for by the decades, the Thirties through the early Sixties, during which most of them had been written. My mother’s large collection of murder mysteries was particularly instructive. She much preferred the English variety, with its emphasis on the restoration of order. In books by her favorite “Golden Age” British mystery writers—Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, John Dickson Carr, and Agatha Christie—evil might lurk around every foggy corner, and murder most foul would throw everything into temporary flux, but in the end the detective, often a rogue aristocrat like Lord Peter Wimsey or Roderick Alleyn, ferreted out the culprit in a stunning display of logic, intuition and, often, an understanding of complex soc
ial realities for which aristocrats, in novels like these if nowhere else, are famous.

  American murder mysteries left her cold. She thought they were less clever, which was true enough; Raymond Chandler famously couldn’t follow his own plots. But they also operated on an entirely different set of premises. Here detectives didn’t solve crimes by means of brilliant deductions or arcane knowledge. In American detective novels the hero’s primary virtues are his honesty and his ability to take a punch. Sam Spade hasn’t much interest in restoring order because, as he knows all too well, that order was corrupt to begin with. Villains are typically either rich men who made their money dishonestly or, worse yet, people of limited moral imagination who aspire only to what money and power can buy, who want to move up in class and don’t care how. In this noir world, cops are on the take, lawyers and judges all have a price, as do doctors and newspapermen. In a sea of corruption your only hope is a lone man, someone you can hire but who can’t be bought off by anybody who has more money. There probably is no figure in literature more romantic than Philip Marlowe, whose very name suggests knight-errantry, and my mother was herself a romantic of the first order, but she had no more use for Marlowe than she had for Anita Brookner. Men like Marlowe always ended up telling her what she didn’t want to hear. Okay, he might find your missing child or husband, but often you’d end up wishing he hadn’t, because he’d also find out something you didn’t want to know about that child or husband or even yourself, something you’d been trying hard not to look at, or admit to. What kind of escape was that? Better to get good news from a fop like Lord Peter, whose sell-by date in the real world would have long since expired, had anyone like him ever existed in the first place.

  The historical novels my mother favored were similarly revealing. They featured a brave, stalwart heroine who invariably would prove herself worthy of the dashing fellow she’d fallen in love with, often by testing her mettle in his world. If she fell in love with a pirate, she might for a time become a pirate herself. Their freedom from social mores, however, was understood to be a phase, like adolescence, and their adventures always culminated in marriage, an institution that would tame the heroine’s wilder impulses and make the hero a responsible citizen. To facilitate these matters, the former rogue would be discovered to be actually an aristocrat who’d been cheated out of his estate, which in the final chapter is restored to him. It was a complicated fantasy, one that allowed my mother to think of herself as a rebel while actually being, in her heart of hearts, a conformist. Though she claimed not to be a prude, she preferred sex not to be explicit but rather relegated to the space breaks or implied by the coy nicknames (“my sugar wench”) given the heroine by her paramour. Reality, especially of the grim sort, should at all costs be kept at bay, regardless of the genre. She claimed to love anything about Ireland or England or Spain, but in fact she needed books in these settings to be warm and comfy, more like Maeve Binchy than William Trevor. Not surprisingly, given that she’d felt trapped most of her life, she loved books about time travel, but only if the places the characters traveled to were ones she was interested in. She had exactly no interest in the future or in any past that didn’t involve romantic adventure.

  Still, illuminating though literary taste can be, the more I thought about it, neither my mother’s library nor my own meant quite what I wanted it to. If my books were more serious and literary than hers, that was due more to nurture than nature. If I didn’t read much escapist fiction, it was because I lived a blessed life from which I neither needed nor desired to escape. I wasn’t a superior person, just an educated one, and for that in large measure I had my mother to thank. Maybe she’d tried to talk me out of becoming a writer, but she was more responsible than anyone for my being one. Back when we lived on Helwig Street, at the end of her long workdays at GE, after making her scant supper and cleaning up, after doing the laundry (without benefit of a washing machine) and ironing, after making sure I was set for school the next day, she might’ve collapsed in front of the television, but she didn’t. She read. Every night. Her taste, unformed as mine would later be by a score of literature professors, was equally dogmatic; she read her Daphne du Mauriers and Mary Stewarts until their covers fell off and had to be replaced. It was from my mother that I learned reading was not a duty but a reward, and from her that I intuited a vital truth: most people are trapped in a solitary existence, a life circumscribed by want and failures of imagination, limitations from which readers are exempt. You can’t make a writer without first making a reader, and that’s what my mother made me. Moreover, though I’d outgrown her books, they had a hand in shaping the kind of writer I’d eventually become—one who, unlike many university-trained writers, didn’t consider plot a dirty word, who paid attention to audience and pacing, who had little tolerance for literary pretension.

  No, in order to make the case that my mother and I weren’t two peas in a genetic pod, I needed to identify something in my basic nature, some habit of mind or innate ability that I’d always possessed, traceable all the way back to who I’d been on Helwig Street, not who I’d become in the meantime. Was it possible I was literally staring at it? Could it be that our bookshelves—not the books themselves or what was in them but rather their current haphazard arrangement—provided the answer to why my mother and I were forever at loggerheads? Two weeks earlier, Barbara and I had hastily thrown onto the shelves as many books as would fit, then moved on to more pressing tasks. Indeed, since moving to Camden, we’d been in what I thought of as “this now, that later” mode. With dozens of tasks to complete each day (with everything, to borrow my mother’s word, unsettled), they all were constantly being prioritized and reprioritized. This now, that later mode was all about making sound decisions on the fly about what had to be attended to now and what could wait. Logic and reason were important, but often you had to go on intuition and feel. What you saw in your peripheral vision could be as important as what you were looking at directly. On the basis of incomplete data, you had to make educated guesses and try to see three or four moves in advance, to anticipate the Law of Unintended Consequences before it kicked in. Just as vital, you had to accept that you were going to make mistakes from time to time. When you messed up, it was important not to mind and even more important to promptly reverse course. You also had to understand that at any given moment there were decisions you simply couldn’t make yet and have faith that given time some problems would resolve themselves. What we were engaged in was a kind of domestic triage, and I’d always been pretty good at that, God only knew why, because this was something completely left out of my mother. I hadn’t forgotten how, back in Phoenix, I’d had to reorder her daily to-do lists so they made at least a little sense and we didn’t waste time retracing our steps. At eighteen I was already cringing at her due-south instincts and her inability, once she’d begun a task, to abandon it for a more important one. She couldn’t possibly have lived with the chaos of our bookshelves for two days, much less two weeks. Even as a young man I could see how much her faulty decision making was costing her, that because of her inflexible adherence to poor sequencing she was forever discovering, too late, that her ship, which could easily have been turned around while out at sea, now had to be rotated in the cramped harbor.

  It now occurred to me that I’d been trying to resequence my mother’s to-do lists ever since, with decidedly mixed results. Sometimes she’d grasp my organizing principle and say, “Oh, aren’t you clever!” But more often she’d insist on doing things her own way and become monumentally annoyed when I pointed out that B really had to follow A, that getting A right was the key to both B and C, that A was the necessary foundation upon which the remaining alphabet would rest. To this she’d respond that different people saw things differently, and that to her, B was more important than A. Worse, she was always so proud of her tortured logic. She loved to explicate, detail by wobbly detail, how she’d arrived at her dubious conclusions. She wasn’t unlike the detectives in her locked-room mys
teries, who would reveal in the final excruciating chapter how the villainous deed was done, that the murderer was legless, which was why, once he’d removed his prostheses, no one had observed him running away on his stumps on the far side of the shoulder-high hedge. Leaving the reader to say, “I’m sorry, what?”

  When I was eighteen and my mother in her forties, our disagreements over process were seldom serious. She liked to say there was more than one way to skin a cat and that when I got to be her age I’d have odd habits, too. But over the years, as I became increasingly responsible for the outcomes of her insistence on doing things out of their natural and practical order, together with my growing impatience with her interminable, brain-scalding explanations, there were more serious disputes. At times, rather than argue, I’d just throw up my hands. “Do what you want,” I’d tell her, halfway out the door. “Let me know how it turns out.” And sometimes, the phone would ring an hour later, and she’d say, “Now I see what you meant.” But just as often her voice would be triumphant, once she’d somehow succeeded in forcing the square peg into the round hole with a mallet and now was eager to explain the brilliance of her violent solution. This, then, was surely what I was looking for: the hardwired difference, probably genetic in origin, between my mother and me, the root of our ongoing conflict and the reason that I was seldom able, as she put it, “to take her side.”

 
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