Summary: Mohawk, New York, is one of those small towns
that lie almost entirely on the wrong side of the tracks. Its citizens,
too, have fallen on hard times. Dallas Younger, a star athlete in high
school, now drifts from tavern to poker game, losing money, and, inevitably,
another set of false teeth. His ex-wife, Anne, is stuck in a losing
battle with her mother over the care of her sick father. And their son,
Randall, is deliberately neglecting his school work--because in a place
like Mohawk it doesn't pay to be too smart.
In Mohawk Richard Russo explores these lives with profound compassion
and flint-hard wit. Out of derailed ambitions and old loves, secret
hatreds and communal myths, he has created a richly plotted, densely
populated, and wonderfully written novel that captures every nuance
of America's backyard.
1. What place did you see when you read Nathan Littler? Which other
of our real local places and names did you match-up/identify as those
in Russo’s fictional Mohawk?
2. At what point or with which character were you most involved in
the novel—and why?
3. Do you think Russo had an intention—beyond to write his first
novel—in writing Mohawk?
4. Was there any part of the novel that confused you? (Would you like
to hear the entirety of the New York Times review of Mohawk on its debut,
quoted on the book jacket?)
5. Is there a particular section you loved best, for its writing? Or
aspect of the writing you liked best?
6. Are there any narratives in your life or those close to yours which
could be those of a character in a Russo novel?
7. Does Russo miss anything about life in our Mohawk Valley towns in
the 1970s? If it were set in the present, what might be different or
added? What might be nearly just the same?
8. Is there any character in particular you would like to follow into
another novel—and why?
Barnes & Noble has a great “Meet the Writers” section
which mentions Mohawk. In it, Maureen Corrigan of NPR’s Fresh
Air says: "He doesn’t over-sentimentalize [small towns].”
The New York State
Writer’s Institute echoes an oft-used characterization of
Russo as “one of the most important writers of “Main Street”
since “Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis.””
Russo is known for his large casts of characters and for writing about
small-town blue-collar life begins with Mohawk, his first novel. (I
think he also has an affinity for diners. I don’t know all his
work, but I know there was an Empire Grill in Empire Falls, and there’s
a Mohawk Grill in Mohawk and I read that he has a penchant for writing
Small towns and the people who live and work and love and die in them
are in Russo’s wheelhouse as a writer. From that same article,
Russo is quoted as saying: "There’s a version of myself that
I still see in a kind of alternative universe and it’s some small
town in upstate New York or someplace like that.”
I can’t help but sneak in the really fun part for me, of reading
Russo’s work—my personal experiences—very brief—of
Russo himself, and because of those, my sense that in terms of Russo’s
connections to place and people, I think it’s less an “alternative
universe” for him than he makes it sound.
Anecdote #1: When I worked for Literacy Volunteers in 2004, I called
Colby College, where he had taught, seeking a way to contact Russo—to
ask him to read for a fundraiser—and was given his home number.
So I left a message. At four o’clock on a Friday afternoon. And
he called back. At 4:30. And we had a chat about the importance of local
support of literacy and his regard for William Kennedy (Bill Kennedy,
to him) and so on. He was lovely. But he and his wife were on their
way to Venice that October—I swear I’m not fudging this;
Bridge Of Sighs came out later – but that if I was still in need,
I should call when he got back. I felt like I was Oprah.
Anecdote #2: Years later, I attended a New York State Writers Institute
reading of Russo’s—he was reading from Bridge Of Sighs.
It was really fun to sit in the audience of a writer I consider a local
writer who has achieved that kind of literary recognition and, well,
fame. While he seemed entirely comfortable at the podium fielding questions—in
fact usually the audience questions are selected and modulated by Don
Faulkner, director of the NYSWriters Institute, Russo—not only
in his clearly familiarity and ease with Faulkner, but in his ease and
interest—was genuine in a way sometimes not, at such readings—in
the audience, he fielded questions without that filter. He seemed to
prefer that. Hands on Q&A so to speak. It was nice.
He made a the big auditorium of Page Hall at SUNY-Albany feel cozy.
That struck me, reading his work, as something he wants to engender
in his fiction: The sense that you’re almost sitting at the Mohawk
Grill too, or that your life, which may also have in it blown fuses,
a wet attic, perhaps a relative with a very particular personality—that
your experiences are the stuff of literature. And of course, they are.
All of our lives are. And what I would offer first and last this evening
is that my guess is that’s his nectar for us, and our enjoyment
Not just because it was mine. But because it’s a theme of his
work. He is interested in the small world in relation to—often
struggling to stay afloat against or in—the larger world, all
economies and politics being some kind of “local”. For Russo,
in Mohawk, the narrative’s—and its newspaper The Republican’s—interest
in the tanneries dumping into Cayuga Creek—that kind of fictionalization
is the kind of “semi-autobiographical” I think the booksellers
and reviewers are talking about regarding Russo (rather than his personal
life experiences fictionalized; for instance Randall does not stay in
college…), because those events in the novel reference the “jobs
vs. environment” work and concerns of locals, here, in Fulton
County, in the 1980s. [There’s an academic paper called, “Labor
and the Environmental Movement: The Quest for Common Ground by Brian
K. Obach” one might enjoy reading. (Cayadutta Creek)]
(I looked briefly for court cases in the 70s and 80s in the area but
didn’t find anything that was a perfect fit for Randall and his
predicament at the end of the novel….)
I admire Russo’s work for the way he brings the greater world
into his narratives through the characters living in and through their
everyday lives, in their localities, through the experiences of the
characters. The draft and Vietnam rank mention because they are part
of life, of Randall’s life, in Mohawk. In other words, Russo doesn’t
set out to write a period-piece, or a Local Tanneries Cause Cancer!
exposé or notes on How to Avoid the Draft in 1971. Those aspects
of life are the flannel shirts, the wheelchairs and pool covers of the
novel. In his “local” stories, in other words, there is
also the world: economic and environmental corruption, Selective Service-the
draft-Vietnam, losing your teeth again, divorce, death, living with
your mother-in-law, avoiding the high school bully, living in town with
your unrequited love—they are rendered as though all of a piece,
all on the same level—just as one might say they are experienced
in life, and so the “issues” of life are only important
to his readers howsoever they are to his characters, because it’s
the characters we care about, not just in novels, but on our own streets,
main or otherwise.
of the City of Gloversville, NY
Glovers of Fulton County
- Gloversville Public Library (second from
the bottom-glove cutting)
Interviews with Richard Russo
Discussion and questions provided by Jennifer Hill.
This discussion guide made possible with public
funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a State Agency. Sponsored
by the Mohawk Valley Library System and participating member libraries.