Richard Russo has a complicated relationship with Gloversville.
He grew up there during the city’s decline from glove-making prosperity, fled the place, then years later leveraged the grit and depression of hometown memories into a Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction-writing career.
Wednesday afternoon, he returned to give his first major reading in the area.
Before the event — a big, well-publicized affair celebrating the 50th anniversary of Fulton-Montgomery Community College — he killed time in the Johnstown Holiday Inn lobby.
“They tell me there are going to be 700 people there,” he said. “I’m not sure yet how many of them will be carrying torches.”
Russo said his best novels — “Mohawk,” “Nobody’s Fool” and the Pulitzer-winning “Empire Falls” — were all based on Gloversville, but not current-day Gloversville. He hasn’t lived there for 40 years. Russo’s work is rooted in Old Gloversville — the declining empire of lifelong glovemakers kicked to the curb.
“I’ve called Gloversville Mohawk, I’ve called it Empire Falls,” he said. “All that was fine.”
Last year he released a memoir, “Elsewhere,” which details his youth, living with his worried mother and grandparents in Gloversville. It was the first time he called the place by its real name.
The majority of his work, he said, is based on the people and general air of his childhood home, but he lives in Portland, Maine, these days and doesn’t come back all that often. Until Wednesday, he hadn’t done local speaking engagements. He said it’s a difficult sort of homecoming.
Tuesday night, Russo arrived in town and went out with his cousins, Greg and Jim. They got a table at the old Capella’s restaurant, now Harold’s. Downtown looked clean and spruced up, but it was the way Russo had it in his mind.
“I’ve written about the place for so long and told so many vivid lies,” he said. “When I come back, nothing is where I left it.”
Then Greg and Jim started telling childhood stories, and the Slavic names just brought everything back at once.
“It was like getting the bends,” Russo said. “Just coming up too fast.”
Later Wednesday, at FMCC, a crowd milled around the Raiders Den gymnasium. There were 700 people, many with books, many carrying the same sort of childhood memories as Russo. Johnstown residents Richard Simek sat with his wife, Mary Ann, and friend Marla Whittingham in metal folding chairs a few rows from the front.
“I spent 40 years in the tanning business,” Simek said. “It’s smelly, nasty work and hazardous. I can relate to this stuff.”
He was in charge of mixing highly toxic chromium sulfate tanning solutions at age 16, the same chemical Russo’s grandfather used when he worked in a tannery.
All three grew up at about the same time as Russo, near Russo, but never met him and never left the area. They loved all his books, especially “Elsewhere,” saying it brought back memories of Estee Middle School and various bars.
Not every local has been so positive. Vincent DeSantis, while generally a fan, said Russo portrayed the area as a sickly contaminated place, a place that might give you cancer if you stick around.
“We don’t have a higher cancer rate here than anywhere else,” said DeSantis, a former City Court judge.
Even Russo admitted he’s gotten some hate mail regarding his literary take on Gloversville. It’s not exactly positive.
But he needn’t have worried about torches. When he came out on stage, the whole gymnasium stood and cheered.
He read from an essay titled “The Destiny Thief,” which wove a number of stories into that familiar tale of self-discovery. For Russo, self-discovery came after years of denying his roots in an Arizona academic English program.
“When asked, I would say I was from upstate New York,” he said, “not Gloversville. It was a deft move to avoid embarrassment.”
After thousands of pages of unfulfilling academic prose, his pen at last returned to Gloversville.
“I figured, if myself isn’t good enough,” he said, “so be it.”
A decades-long writing career, Pulitzer-level success and weeks on best-seller lists followed, eventually bringing him back home to read in a packed gymnasium.
If there were any locals busy resenting what Russo termed his “tidy career built from Gloversville’s memory,” they didn’t speak up.