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BOOK DISCUSSION GUIDE

Title: Mohawk
Author: Richard Russo

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.

Questions:
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?

Related Information:
Barnes & Noble has a great “Meet the Writers” section on Russo, 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 in diners.)

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 of him.

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.

History of the City of Gloversville, NY
The Glovers of Fulton County
The Documentarian - Gloversville Public Library (second from the bottom-glove cutting)
l
Interviews with Richard Russo
National Public Radio
Identity Theory

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.

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