Fulton County

Russo’s vision of Gloversville

Richard Russo’s Gloversville is a place of happy childhood memories, of walks to the park, bike ride

Richard Russo’s Gloversville is a place of happy childhood memories, of walks to the park, bike rides and pickup games of basketball and baseball.

But it’s also a source of sadness and anger, of grim tales of dangerous mill work, industrial decline and a shrinking middle class.

In his new memoir, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author wrestles with his mixed feelings for his hometown, which has provided a vivid backdrop for Russo’s fiction since his first novel, “Mohawk,” was published in 1986.

Titled “Elsewhere,” the memoir focuses on Russo’s relationship with his mother, Jean, a hard-working single mother who commuted to a well-paying job at General Electric in Schenectady, and was as intelligent and attractive as she was difficult and dissatisfied. It is a deeply personal book, imbued with affection, humor and regret — the same qualities that permeate the author’s fiction.

In Gloversville, Russo’s work is regarded with mixed feelings.

“There are people in the community who say they’ll never read another Russo book, who think he’s made millions off of us,” said Barbara Madonna, director of the Gloversville Public Library. “But others look forward to his books.”

“I’m proud that he’s put us on the map,” Madonna continued. “I wish the community could embrace him more positively than some people do.”

Russo declined several requests for an interview, saying that the interviews he had done had left him “exhausted and dispirited.”

In a letter to The Leader-Herald, the city’s daily newspaper, one local resident, Louis Garguilo Jr., told Russo: “Leave Gloversville alone. If you have to spend so much time thinking about the city, maybe you could do something in support instead of disparaging its good people and proud history to make your living.” In his letter, Garguilo, a Gloversville native who now lives in Slingerlands, recalled growing up in a city that was like a “Norman Rockwell painting,” but had fallen on hard times. “Most of the leather mills are gone now, and the city has not recovered fully,” he writes. “Maybe that is what you wanted.”

Russo’s aunt, Phyllis Gottung, said that her nephew’s affection for his hometown is evident in his work.

“I don’t think Rick looks back on Gloversville as anything bad, or else he wouldn’t keep writing about it,” said Gottung, 84, who spent most of her life in Gloversville but now lives in Ballston Spa.

Good times, hard times

Gloversville was once known as the hub of glove making in America, with roughly 1,900 manufacturers in Gloversville and Johnstown at one time or another between 1925 and the late 1990s.

According to the book “The Glove Cities: How A People and Their Craft Built Two Cities” by Barbara McMartin, 90 percent of men’s fine dress gloves in the U.S. were once made in Fulton County, and the booming glove industry transformed the area into one of the richest counties per capita in the nation. “Then, like many nineteenth century craft industries, which depended more on manual labor than on machines, the glove industry waned,” she writes. “In the second half of the twentieth century, Fulton County became one of the poorest counties in New York State.”

Russo witnessed this transition. The prologue to “Elsewhere” provides a brief history of the glove industry’s ascent and decline, and the impact these shifting fortunes had on both his family and hometown. He describes the declining health of his maternal grandfather, a skilled glove-cutter with whom he and his mother shared a two-family house on Helwig Street, and shares his cousins’ harrowing stories of working in the beam house of a skin mill.

“By the time I graduated from high school in 1967, you could have strafed Main Street with an automatic weapon without endangering a soul,” Russo writes. “On Saturday afternoons the sidewalks were deserted, people in newly reduced circumstances shopping for bargains at the cheap, off-brand stores that had spring up along the arterial. The marquee at the Glove Theatre bore the title of the last film to play there, though enough of the letters were missing that you couldn’t guess what it was. Jobless men emerged from the pool hall or one of the seedy gin mills that sold cheap draft beer and rotgut rye, blinking into the afternoon light and flexing at the knees. Lighting up a smoke, they’d peer up Main Street in one direction, then down the other, as if wondering where the hell everybody went.”

Thin disguise

In Russo’s fiction, the city of Gloversville is always rechristened.

In “Mohawk,” it was called Mohawk. In his breakthrough novel “Nobody’s Fool,” it was called Bath. In “Empire Falls,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2002, it was called Empire Falls and located in Maine.

Don Faulkner, who directs the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany, recalled talking with Russo about his decision to set “Empire Falls” on the coast of Maine. “He said he needed to have water nearby, and that otherwise it was Gloversville,” he said. “I once asked him, ‘Why did you leave New York?’ and he looked at me, almost quizzically, and said, ‘But I haven’t.’”

After graduating from high school, Russo attended the University of Arizona, where he eventually earned his doctorate. From there, he headed to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, which was followed by a move to Maine when he landed a job teaching at Colby College. Today he lives in Camden, Maine, and also has an apartment in Boston.

“He very self-consciously wanted to get away,” Faulkner said. “Sometimes you have to go away to consider where you’ve been.” Fiction allows writers to take an existing landscape and put their individual stamp on it — to make “a portable home that you can carry in your head,” he said.

“Richard Russo’s Gloversville couldn’t be anyone else’s,” Faulkner said.

Faulkner noted that many of Russo’s characters bear a resemblance to people from his past. For instance, Sully, the protagonist in “Nobody’s Fool,” “is his father in an awful lot of ways, but it also isn’t,” he said. Russo keeps returning to Gloversville “because he’s still looking for something,” he said. “He really is in search of truth.”

Writing a memoir was a way for Russo to “say what was lasting about his childhood and the forces that shaped him,” Faulkner said. “I think it will shed light on the rest of his work.”

Toxic stream

In “Elsewhere,” Russo discusses the role Gloversville plays in his work.

“Rather than confront my own love-hate relationship with my hometown, I simply created other Gloversvilles in my imagination,” he writes, noting that the Gloversville of his imagination can be a dark place.

“They’re not Mayberry, my stand-in Gloversvilles,” he writes. “Bad things happen there. Out behind the old Bijou, Three Mock, a black boy, gets beaten half to death for sitting next to a white girl in the theater; young, horrifically abused John Voss furnishes his wardrobe out of the Dumpster behind the Empire Grill and plots revenge; and on the outskirts of town another unfortunate boy hangs impaled atop a fence, an iron spike protruding from his open mouth like a black tongue. And the toxic stream, running blue one day, red the next, always meanders through town, touching everyone, linking everyone, poisoning everyone.”

The stream Russo is referring to is the Cayadutta Creek, which during his childhood changed colors daily, depending on what colors the tanneries were dying their leather. As boys, Russo and his cousin Greg Gottung would stick their arms into the stream, which was nicknamed Rainbow Creek, and dye their skin different colors.

Gottung said he believes Russo has been fair to Gloversville in his writing, and that his novels reflect some hard realities. “He tells the truth,” he said. “Are we prospering as a place? We are not.”

“Gloversville was always a tough place to make money, even when the mills were going full bore,” continued Gottung, 61, who lives in Gloversville. “Mill work is tough. … We were a one-trick pony. We had nothing else to fall back on.” He added, “I don’t think Gloversville looks any worse than most places.”

Phyllis Gottung said that her perspective on Gloversville is different from her nephew’s. “Some of the things Rick says about Gloversville — I won’t say they irritate me, but I have a different feeling,” she said.

View from inside

In “Elsewhere,” Russo describes his correspondence with former Gloversville City Judge Vincent DeSantis, who sent him a copy of his own book, “Toward Civic Integrity: Re-establishing the Micropolis,” as well as a copy of Russo’s novel “Bridge of Sighs.” In his letter, DeSantis asked Russo to autograph “Bridge of Sighs,” and to read “Toward Civic Integrity” to learn more about the Gloversville of the present.

“He has this view of Gloversville, and I wondered whether he would be interested in learning about what we’re doing in Gloversville now,” DeSantis said. “I thought that maybe he would be interested in reading about a group of citizens dedicated to the revitalization of the city. The idea was to help him take a look at Gloversville from a fresh perspective.”

DeSantis said he enjoys Russo’s books, and that he isn’t bothered by the author’s depiction of Gloversville.

“I’m proud of him,” he said. “I’m proud to be from the same community as him.”

“Although he depicts a down-on-its-heels city, in many ways he depicts heroic characters, the beauty and resilience of the human spirit,” DeSantis continued. “I come away from reading his books with a not entirely negative perspective. But in all his books there’s the idea that life is rough and that a lot of people take advantage of other people, and that these things never change. My view of things is that we do have the capacity to fundamentally change our communities.”

One of the areas where the two men differ is in their attitude toward the glove industry.

In his book, DeSantis describes a past where Gloversville made and sold a popular product, and the city’s affluence supported local businesses and a thriving middle class. Russo describes the glove industry as an exploitative enterprise that enriched mill owners at the expense of workers and community health. DeSantis said he didn’t intend to gloss over the glove industry’s negative features, which he views as typical of industrial societies during that time period, but that “my book is about the future and opportunity to change … about how we can use facts that we know about the past to form a better society.”

In November, DeSantis returned from a 10-month trip abroad, which involved biking and working organic farms in France and Italy. He said he hasn’t had time to read “Elsewhere” yet.

Mark Kilmer, president of the Fulton Montgomery Regional Chamber of Commerce, said he hasn’t read “Elsewhere,” but that he’s heard good things about it, and that he intends to read it.

Kilmer said that Gloversville is “on an upswing” and that he shares DeSantis’ enthusiasm. He also said he was proud of Russo: “He’s known as a great writer.”

A drive through Gloversville reveals that many of Russo’s childhood landmarks exist only in memories.

Sacred Heart Church, where Russo was once an altar boy, closed in 2009, when it merged with St. Mary of Mount Carmel, forming the Church of the Holy Spirit on South Main Street. Bishop Burke High School, Russo’s alma mater, closed in the 1970s. The campus is now the home of the Lexington Day Treatment Center, which serves the developmentally disabled. The Glove Theatre, where Russo was a regular, closed its doors in the 1970s, though it has been reborn as a performing arts center. On South Main Street, many storefronts are vacant.

Family of readers

One mainstay is the Gloversville Public Library, which opened in 1905 and is one of the region’s three remaining Carnegie libraries — architecturally impressive buildings that were erected with the help of businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

The library was within walking distance of Russo’s home on Helwig Street, and both he and his mother grew up reading and borrowing its books. In “Elsewhere,” Russo describes his mother as an avid reader.

“Rick and I always liked to read,” said Greg Gottung. “Reading books was something you got to do because you wanted to. It wasn’t a chore. It was fun.”

Phyllis Gottung recalled the day she turned 5, and Jean, who was six years older, told her that she was old enough to get a library card. “We were brought up reading,” she said.

Russo’s books are popular among library patrons, and demand for his older material increases whenever he has a new book out, as he does now. “We’re doing a brisk business with ‘Elsewhere,’” said Madonna, the library director, noting that Russo’s books are most popular with people between the ages of 40 and 70.

Priscilla Mitchell, who owns Mysteries on Main Street, a bookstore in Johnstown, said Russo’s books sell well, and that “Elsewhere” has already sold 100 copies — robust business for a smaller store such as hers.

Russo’s cousin and aunt said that one of Russo’s goals in writing “Elsewhere” was to raise awareness of mental illness.

In the book, Russo writes of how his mother was described as having “nerves,” and how her outbursts and meltdowns were a common occurrence throughout his childhood and adulthood — his mother accompanied him west when he attended the University of Arizona, and also followed him to Carbondale and Maine.

Mental health

Not long after his mother died, Russo’s daughter was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. In “Elsewhere,” he describes reading a book about OCD and recognizing his own mother within its pages. “Mental illness, like physical illness, first required diagnosis, then appropriate therapy,” he writes. But his mother received neither, and had been “gradually eaten alive” as a result.

“He wanted people to understand that you have to get help,” Greg Gottung said. “You can’t just tough it out.”

Phyllis Gottung said that “Elsewhere” is well written, but was difficult for her to read.

“It made me very sad,” she said. “It brought back things about my sister. The thing that made me feel the worst was that none of us ever got a handle on what was wrong. Rick certainly didn’t, until after she died.” She said she hoped the book would help others. “I’m glad he wrote it, because if it helps one person, one family, to think, ‘My goodness, that’s how so and so acts.’ ”

“I knew it had to be hard for Rick as a husband and a father to keep doing what his mother wanted all the time,” Phyllis Gottung said. “No matter how hard he tried, something was usually wrong. … She just seemed to always want to make herself over, and there wasn’t anything wrong with the way she was.” She said she has many happy memories of her sister. “I remember my sister as full of fun,” she said.

Faulkner said that Russo didn’t go on a book tour as he typically does after he publishes a new book.

“He thought it was a little too personal,” Faulkner said. “The fact that he didn’t go criss-crossing the country is an indication of how close to the bone it is.”

Russo hasn’t set foot in Gloversville in more than a decade.

“My fictional hometowns are no better or worse than the real one,” Russo writes in “Elsewhere.” “They’re just mine, mostly because I’m free to see them with my own eyes, whereas the real Gloversville (as I’m coming to understand, thanks to Vincent DeSantis’ book) I still see with my mother’s. The paralyzing anxiety I feel at the thought of returning home is her legacy.”

Mitchell said she would love to have Russo come to her bookstore and give a reading, but that reading “Elsewhere” helped her understand why this is unlikely.

“People who have bought the book and come in again say, ‘Now I understand why he doesn’t want to come back,’” she said. Her readers “love his books. He is a very good writer. Most of the people who grew up here really want to see him.”

Russo’s relatives said they read his books, and are proud of him and what he’s accomplished.

“I’ve always been proud of Rick,” said Phyllis Gottung. “He was always a very good kid.”

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