Very little of On Helwig Street takes place on Helwig Street, in the small, mill town of Gloversville, in upstate New York. Instead, Richard Russo’s first work of non-fiction, ‘best described,’ he says, ‘as a memoir’, follows the many other places he and his mother lived after they left his childhood home. The story is, in turns, an apology, an explanation, a psychological examination, and a personal struggle to understand the unique lifelong bond between these two people. It is also a captivating, honest, touching and surprisingly unsentimental account of Russo’s relationship with his mother.
Jean Russo left her gambler husband when her son, Richard, was still small, and moved in to the two-bedroom single-bath flat above her parents, at 36 Helwig Street. Her father, ‘who’d never before purchased anything he couldn’t pay for with cash out of his wallet, bought the house,’ Russo suspects, ‘because he knew his daughter’s marriage was on the rocks’.
Although Jean worked – in the nearby offices of General Electric – it was difficult for a woman in the 1950s to earn a living wage. Her estranged husband rarely contributed, so money was always tight for the single mother. Young Richard was aware of this and, even though he had qualified for financial assistance, he chose to go to the less expensive University of Arizona rather than one of the nearby New York universities. That would, of course, mean leaving Helwig Street, and his mother. But he hadn’t realised how desperate Jean was to leave small town Gloversville and explore the opportunities offered elsewhere. It was Jean’s parents who strongly objected to the move, suggesting that their daughter was in no condition for such a major change in her life.
Jean suffered from ‘nerves’. Even as a boy, Russo knew that this could one day lead to a nervous breakdown, ‘a phrase that haunted my childhood’. He’d seen other women in his family suffer from breakdowns, and knew they were often hospitalised and given electroshock treatments. ‘Her health was in my hands,’ he writes, ‘I was good because I feared that if I misbehaved it would be my mother who’d be punished’.
But although Russo was aware of his mother’s ‘condition’ from an early age, he notes that, as with many such long-term illnesses, ‘they lose their power to terrify. They simply become part of the landscape’. So when his mother returned to Helwig Street, he accepted that she left Arizona because – as she said – the job paid so poorly, the apartment block was too rowdy, the man she’d met got too intense and that her father was so ill. After a few years back in Gloversville though, Jean called her then newly-married son, still living in Arizona, and asked how long was she ‘expected to live in a cage’. The cage being Helwig Street.
And so began a pattern that continued for more than thirty-five years. Jean would move to one place only to find it unsuitable for one reason or another, try the next place but it would be no good either. She’d move back to Helwig Street only to feel trapped there, find a new place near her son, hate that apartment, move to one across town, move back, wish she hadn’t moved in the first place, return to Gloversville then miss Richard and his young family and want to live close to them again.
Russo frames the story – and he expertly turns this repeating cycle of hopes and disappointments into an absorbing narrative – with the dreams he has of his mother after her death until the time after he’d scattered her ashes. A sense of neglect filled those first dreams while, in the later ones, he’s back in Gloversville, with his mother, in the decaying house his grandfather owned. Even though he left there in 1967, at the age of 18, Helwig Street still influences his subconscious. That fact will be obvious to anyone familiar with Russo’s novels, his descriptions of small-town life and the people who inhabit those places. And it’s interesting to match the events of his life detailed in this book to the publication of his novels: the darkness of Bridge of Sighs while Jean’s health was failing, and That Old Cape Magic while his daughter was getting married and his mother was dying.
And while some parts of this memoir might seem like Russo working through his own feelings of guilt, he also expresses a great deal of gratitude to his mother: ‘You can’t make a writer without first making a reader, and that’s what my mother made me.’ The book, in fact, has a lot to say about how parents influence their children, both genetically and psychologically. It was only after his mother’s death, when his own daughter started showing troubling symptoms, that Russo gets a clearer picture of what might have been troubling Jean all those years. When his daughter was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, he reads up on the condition and recognises many of the traits. He also gets an insight into his own compulsive behaviour, which he’s been lucky enough to channel into writing, and go on to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
Any Cop?: This book is many things, and although it’s called a memoir on the front cover, Russo himself admits, ‘I don’t know what else to call it’. He crafts chapters to have cliff-hanger endings, builds the tension of a cross country journey like a thrilling road movie, and perfectly escalates mounting frustration as well as any Noel Coward farce. It might be difficult to define, but it’s so easy to enjoy and it was certainly a great pleasure to spend a little time On Helwig Street.