July 2, 2004
Richard Russo, Happily at Home in Winesburg East
ain Street is the climax of civilization."
Richard Russo lives on Main Street. Well, that's not literally the name of it. But his pretty white house with the screened-in porch and the deck out back is on the main street in this picturesque seaside town.
It's just a minute's walk to the center of the business district, replete with the T-shirt shops, craft stores, antiques dealers and beckoning restaurants that identify Camden as the kind of place that city dwellers get away from their lives in, that painters retreat to for inspiration. The kind of place that causes drivers passing through to put on the brakes, stare at the lovely harbor and stop for a fish sandwich and a postcard.
It's a place with something to attract other people and their money, whose population swells in good weather. Curious, isn't it, Mr. Russo is asked, that Camden is exactly the sort of place that the ones in his novels aspire desperately to be?
"Absolutely," Mr. Russo said with a laugh during an interview here on the subject of small towns. He then ticked off the calamities that turn his fictional towns from prosperous ones like Camden into those like, say, Skowhegan. That's the struggling mill town an hour inland that was the model for Empire Falls, the setting and the title of his last novel, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 2002.
"If the mill hadn't shut down, if the spring hadn't dried up," Mr. Russo said. "If, if, if."
Mohawk, N.Y., the tannery town that was the setting of Mr. Russo's two early novels, "Mohawk" and "The Risk Pool." North Bath, N.Y., the former spa where the springs went dry and where he situated "Nobody's Fool," a novel that became a film starring Paul Newman as Don Sullivan, known as Sully, a decent, self-destructive handyman who is the quintessential Russo protagonist. And Empire Falls, Me., where Miles Roby's diner is the one lingering fixture since the textile mill and the shirt factory were abandoned. These are the defining locales in Mr. Russo's America, a comic and melancholy nation dotted with places long in decline from their heyday, rife with people scrabbling to keep their roofs repaired, their cars on the road and their families from imploding and equally rife with eccentrics and schemers.
Literarily speaking, they are the late-20th-century descendants of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, from the 1919 story collection of the same name, and of Sinclair Lewis's Gopher Prairie, Minn., from his 1920 novel, "Main Street." The difference is that they wrote with withering disdain of these places and the circumscribed views of their residents.
"Lewis just despised small towns," Mr. Russo said. "Everything parochial and small-minded was located for him on Main Street, and while I think that's a defensible position, I don't share it. Part of that is because I've also found Boston and New York to be provincial in their own way, and that small-mindedness is a human quality, not a geographical one. But the other thing is that I find small towns and small-town idiots utterly entertaining. I just love them."
Slow Death of Local Pride
Of course, Lewis and Anderson were also writing at a time when most small towns could still believe in themselves as ascendant places; the 1920 census was the first to show that more Americans lived in cities than in small towns. New technology like the telephone and the automobile and modernizations like concrete sidewalks declared to their residents that they belonged on the leading edge of society.
In Mr. Russo's novels, on the other hand, we are given the towns all over the country that for a generation now have been losing young people to cities, manufacturing jobs to the ages of information and globalization, and local pride to a sense that nothing of consequence in the world is happening anywhere nearby. The idea that the disappearance of small towns might be a loss a chipping away of the national character is how Mr. Russo speaks of it was something that neither Anderson nor Lewis could have considered.
"I don't think America has ever had a center the way London is the center of England or Dublin is the center of Ireland," Mr. Russo said. "America has always been a nation of small places, and as we lose them, we're losing part of ourselves."
Mr. Russo's tone was not nostalgic; it was realistic, straightforward, analytical, slightly amused. In it you could locate the voice of his novels, the wryness and the woe-is-us empathy for the poor souls who are stuck in places that can no longer nourish them with hope.
"I've never written nearly as much about place as people seem to think I do," he said. "I just write about class."
Sharing a Destiny
Mr. Russo's novels all have characters who convince themselves that their locations are not their fate, that the future is bright if only the amusement park gets built, if only those visiting investors reopen the shirt factory.
"People in small towns, much more than in cities, share a destiny," he said. "In all my books the unhappy people are the ones without the wisdom to love the life they've been given. But that doesn't gainsay the point that the people in small towns, my small towns at least, are trapped there. You couldn't imagine Sully anyplace else, could you?"
Mr. Russo, a compact, good-humored and mild-mannered man of 54, is, unashamedly, an advocate of the kind of homely old-fashionedness that emanates from small-town romance. He recently gave the commencement address at nearby Colby College in Waterville, Me., where he taught in the 1990's, advising the graduates to take a life partner, have children and find work they can lose themselves in.
"I was aware, as I was telling them that, that it seemed like advice right out of the 1950's," he said. "But they're important. Those things tend to get run up the flagpole in a nostalgic and sickening way at times and claimed by the sort of people I have absolutely no use for."
He is also, however, entirely aware of himself as a modern citizen of the world, aware that Camden is a compromise. On the one hand, it's not the sort of place where people need delusions. On the other, it's a place where people can cling to the values he tries to cling to. In other words, it's a place that nurtures both his life and his work.
"The thing about small towns that is wonderful for a novelist," he said, "is that even though you can create a community in the environment of a city by making the neighborhood into a kind of small town, in cities you can escape. In small towns you have to deal with everybody."
As a resident, he went on, "that can be restrictive, the kind of thing that makes you want to blow town for the weekend." Yet, he said, it contributes to a soul-liberating decency.
"It's liberating to feel that you can't simply walk past the poster in the restaurant that announces the auction for the family with the sick kid or for the family with the house that burnt down," he said. "In New York you habitually walk past people in far more desperate straits than that. You're more your brother's keeper in a small town."
Women Without Gloves
He writes, it is no surprise to learn, as an escapee. He was a child of the 1950's, an early baby boomer who watched as changes in the postwar United States unsettled his family. Born in Johnstown, N.Y., he grew up nearby, in Gloversville read Mohawk about 50 miles northwest of Albany, a place named for the industry that made it prosper.
"Almost 95 percent of the gloves made in the United States up until the end of World War II were made in Gloversville," he said. "So you could, at that time, live there and feel you were part of something important, that as a part of America you had something to give America.
"By the end of the war, the decline of the glove business had begun, partly because women didn't wear gloves anymore, the way men didn't wear hats. But also because there were a lot of gloves coming in from overseas, made with very cheap labor, and they were able to skirt American law and avoid being taxed as finished goods by being shipped in with nothing to be done but having a button sewn on. Gloversville was, in a way, in the first wave of outsourcing."
His grandfather was a glove cutter. But when his father, who took part in the D-Day invasion and made it all the way to Berlin, returned from the war, the identity of the town was already mortally injured.
"I don't think shiftless is the right word," Mr. Russo said, "but he was, well, endlessly creative, and one of the things I've done is to memorialize him in a couple of novels. He was already sensing, in coming home after war, that America was beginning to shift under his feet and that certainly his hometown was. When Sully, in `Nobody's Fool,' is sent to the local college to learn air-conditioning repair and sits in a room with a bunch of 18-year-olds, that is based on my father's experience."
An only child whose parents separated when he was very young his mother commuted to Schenectady, an hour away, where she worked as an early computer operator at General Electric Mr. Russo went to a Roman Catholic school where the circumscription of small-town life was underscored.
"The nuns kept you so busy with venal sins that the idea of mortal sin was kind of beyond your imagination," he said. "Most of us, my high school friends, went on to college to discover a kind of freedom we were ill-equipped for, since nothing in our high school training suggested we were being trained for real life."
He attended the University of Arizona, initially to study archaeology, but finally earned both a Ph.D. in literature and an M.F.A. in creative writing there. In Arizona he also met his wife, Barbara, who is now a real estate agent in Camden, and together they embarked on the itinerant life of a college professor/novelist. They made stops at Penn State-Altoona (which supplied the location for Mr. Russo's comic novel of academia, "Straight Man"), Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, and finally, Colby College.
Mr. Russo stopped teaching after "Nobody's Fool" was made into a movie in 1994. He and his wife and two daughters, now grown, moved to Camden in the summer of 1999. It is here that he wrote "Empire Falls," borrowing a number of local details; the church that Miles and his father, Max, paint together was, like the church across the street from the Russo home, sold and converted into condominiums.
Mostly, though, the novel derives from his time in Waterville, which is just down the road from Skowhegan, a rough-around-the-edges former mill town hoping to reinvent itself as an artists' retreat and/or tourist destination. In that quest, Mr. Russo has assisted. He has adapted "Empire Falls" for HBO, which will broadcast the film directed by Fred Schepisi and starring Ed Harris as Miles, Mr. Newman as Max, Joanne Woodward, Helen Hunt and Robin Wright Penn over two nights next year. It was filmed in Skowhegan and nearby Winslow, at Mr. Russo's suggestion.
"They'd looked in Connecticut and western Massachusetts, where there is no shortage of mill towns, but I said, `Please don't settle on a place unless you've at least looked at Maine,' " he said. "And they came up and they kind of liked Waterville, but when they went to Skowhegan, you could see everybody perked right up, because there was so much there that, of course, fit exactly what they were looking for."
Mr. Russo continued, in head-shaking mode. It turns out, he said, "that life is imitating art because mills are continuing to close, but there was a sudden jolt of prosperity in the town because of all the movie people."
Whether that's the seed of a good thing or simply of another small-town delusion, Mr. Russo didn't speculate. But a stroll around Skowhegan recently turned up several people looking forward to the movie with a sense of excitement and with their fingers crossed. They included Richard and Debbie Zazulia, the owners of a downtown establishment formerly known as Patrick's Pizza Joint.
The filmmakers refurbished it to look like a weathered diner, mounted a neon Indian in a headdress out front and renamed it the Empire Grill, using it as a central setting.
The Zazulias kept it that way; they have had mugs and T-shirts made, and business, Mr. Zazulia said, is picking up.
"But you know, we're just that little place in the state of Maine until the movie comes out," he said.