Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016 by appealing to a sizable portion of the electorate that politicians of both parties had either ignored or derided. Blue-collar workers watching their jobs disappear and their towns and neighborhoods face extraordinary pressures from the global economy found a voice in Trump, even as Hillary Clinton ridiculed them as “deplorables.” Popular culture has long stereotyped such people as buffoons or small-minded rednecks and racists, while serious literature has largely overlooked them—except for Richard Russo. A former English professor, Russo turned in the 1980s to writing about the small-town, upstate New York of his youth, publishing a series of critically acclaimed novels that delineated a world of Americans who made things with their hands and built communities that they thought would endure, only to see much of what they forged disappear.
Different from, say, the small-town agrarianism of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Russo’s literary universe is the regional manufacturing communities that sprang up across the Northeast and the Midwest following the Industrial Revolution. These places, mostly company towns, combined the characteristics of village life with the dynamics of a thriving industrial economy—that is, until the companies left. His novels evoke these places at their peak but also capture their sad decline and the toll it took on individuals and families. Yet his best characters, shrewd and comic, remain persistent, and even optimistic, despite living perilously close to “the edge,” as Russo describes their circumstances. It’s not hard, spending time with Russo’s characters, to understand why people like them might have voted as they did in 2016. “It’s not just about jobs,” Russo explained after Trump’s victory. “It’s about work. It’s not just that their income has gone down. They see themselves as not being valued anymore. They don’t know what their place is in the fabric of society.”
Born in 1949, Russo grew up in Gloversville, New York, a small community roughly 200 miles northwest of New York City and 30 miles west of more fashionable Saratoga Springs. An industrial town, dominated by tanneries and producers of leather goods, Gloversville made nearly 90 percent of all gloves manufactured in America from the late nineteenth century into the mid-twentieth century. One of Russo’s grandfathers was a glovemaker, the other a shoemaker. In 1950, when Russo was just a year old, nearly half the town’s employed men worked in manufacturing, according to the U.S. Census. Gloversville’s median family income at the time, about $3,022 per family, was near the national median—the town, in other words, offered a middle-class way of life. Even now, driving along Gloversville’s streets, you’ll see the “fine old houses set back from the street and well apart from one another,” as Russo observed in his autobiographical 2012 book Elsewhere, and get “a sense of the prosperity” that the town once enjoyed.
Russo came of age just as this world started to disintegrate. Jobs fled to less expensive regions in the South or overseas. Companies that stayed began to automate. Sales shrank as fashions changed and women wore gloves less frequently. Things fell apart. Gloversville’s downtown streets in the 1950s would be gridlocked on a Saturday afternoon, but by the time Russo graduated high school in 1967, you “could have strafed Main Street with an automatic weapon without endangering a soul,” he recalled. “On Saturday afternoon, the sidewalks were deserted, people in newly reduced circumstances shopping for bargains at the cheap, off-brand stores that had sprung up,” he wrote. “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 sun and flexing at the knees.”
Today, about a quarter of Gloversville’s population is poor, and the median income is just 60 percent of the national average; the town has become a place that residents want their kids to leave. Russo fled to the University of Arizona, in pursuit of a career as an English professor. Well along on that path, he started writing fiction, not very successfully at first. Then he found his inspiration. An early unpublished novel failed to impress his professors—except for a short flashback, which described life in a declining New England mill town. Russo recognized that he “knew” the people from that town much better than other characters that he invented and that they had a dignity worth exploring. He began, through his fiction, an improbable journey home. “There’s no such thing as a small life. That’s especially true if that small life is yours,” he told an interviewer.
Russo could draw on an ample stock of stories from Gloversville, partly because he’d spent summers returning there to work odd jobs. One literary touchstone became his often-absent father, who’d left the family soon after Russo was born, but periodically reappeared in his son’s life, especially as he approached adulthood. Though the mill jobs were largely gone, his father continued to work as a manual laborer, mostly on construction crews. Russo himself financed his education by doing the same over summers, often working with his father. “At age 60 my father could still outwork younger men, men 30 years younger. He could work them under the table, and when he finished that, he could drink them under the table, too,” Russo said. “We’re not going to see much of that kind of working man anymore.”
Russo gained a sense of accomplishment that comes from making something with one’s hands—a practice that, these days, many educated Americans find difficult to relate to. “We are a nation that doesn’t make anything anymore. My father and I once worked on one of the Albany Thruway exits, and we could drive by, and say, ‘There’s a lot of our sweat in that.’ It’s not an experience that people know. It’s about these ephemeral words on a computer screen, and if you press the wrong button, poof! They’re gone.”
His dad had another gift: storytelling. Like Philip Roth’s father, who vividly brought the city of Newark home to his young son in the stories he told around the dinner table, Russo’s father had a distinctive voice, which comes through in his son’s novels, giving them authenticity and weight. “I remember going with him to bars and hearing him tell a story about something that happened that afternoon, then hearing him tell the same story over the next couple of weeks. I’d watch it evolve, watch him work on the details,” Russo observed. Coming back to town and spending time on work crews and in blue-collar bars, Russo found striking complexity and nuance. “Some of the language I hear in academe is so empty that it chills my blood,” he noted about university teaching. “But some of the richest language I ever heard was what I heard growing up. Those people loved to talk. And they all had stories to tell.”
Work drives Russo’s narratives. Bereft of well-paid mill jobs, Russo’s characters scramble to make a living. Sully, the 60-year-old protagonist of 1993’s Nobody’s Fool, nurses a bum knee as he digs ditches under his boss’s lawn to replace rotting water pipes; renovates a run-down house for a New York City investor seeking to turn it into a bed-and-breakfast; and rips up the floorboards in an old house that he inherited, so that he can install them elsewhere. When no one’s looking, Sully also appropriates a snowblower from the business of his boss, contractor Carl Roebuck, hoping to make some extra cash by clearing driveways in the winter. In an earlier book, The Risk Pool, Sam Hall vanishes from his son Ned’s life to work road construction across New York. Empire Falls’s Miles Roby, giving up on attending college and escaping his dying town, runs the local diner, serving burgers and tacos. (The diner’s owner, the town’s richest woman, has promised to hand the business over to him one day.) Rub Squeers in Everybody’s Fool, a sequel published in 2016, operates a backhoe to dig graves, a stable government job that he supplements by working off the books for Roebuck, who always “saves the coldest, wettest, foulest, most dangerous jobs” for him. Reading Russo’s descriptions of these characters, you get the sense that many, were they real, could have appeared on Dirty Jobs, the popular cable-TV show chronicling workers in America’s messiest professions. (See “Dirty Jobs, Good Pay,” Spring 2018.)
Most of Russo’s characters live from day to day economically—as illustrated in a sharp exchange in Nobody’s Fool between Sully and Roebuck, who hasn’t paid Sully for his last job or bought him a beer, as promised. “You did shoddy work and I’m not paying you for it,” Roebuck tells him. “You think I got where I am by doing shoddy work?” “No, Carl,” Sully replies. “You didn’t get where you are by doing shoddy work. You didn’t get where you are by doing any work. You got where you are because your father worked himself into an early grave so you could piss away everything he worked for on ski trips and sports cars. . . . Now personally I don’t care about the ski trips and sports cars. I don’t even care if you wind up broke, which you probably will. But before you do, you’re going to pay me the three hundred bucks you owe me, because I dug a fifty-foot trench under your terrace in ninety-degree heat and busted my balls tugging on hundred-year-old pipes that snapped off in my hands every two feet. That’s why you’re going to pay me.” Russo continues: “He got to his feet, facing Carl Roebuck across his big desk. ‘I’ll tell you another thing. You’re going to pay for the beer. I just decided it was only a six-pack, but since you think it was a case, you can pay for a case. Call it a tax on being a prick.’ ”
It isn’t just economic life that is fragile in Russo’s towns. Even as deindustrialization ravaged these places, America was undergoing wrenching cultural changes: a decline in religious participation; the rise of a generational ethos emphasizing personal fulfillment over social responsibility; the spread of “no-fault” divorce laws; and a growing acceptance of illegal drug use. Russo had a front-row seat for one of the biggest consequences of these forces—family breakdown—and his novels provide an early warning that the social disintegration that began to undermine minority urban neighborhoods during the 1960s was also hitting blue-collar rural towns. The Risk Pool—so titled because Sam Hall can obtain insurance only at high rates, being such a big risk—is partly a story about how Hall’s young son Ned negotiates life in a fatherless home, with an increasingly unstable mother. Sam reappears in Ned’s life just when he’s needed, but he’s an unconventional parent. The pair wind up living in a bare apartment with no kitchen, above a department store on Main Street. Ned mostly must fend for himself, except on those occasions when he gets to hang out with Sam and his cronies at a bar. It’s a far remove from his happy boyhood, spent in the tidy home that his grandfather had left to his mother, where he honed his baseball skills by bouncing balls off the house’s stone foundations and spent spare time hanging out with the parish priest at the rectory of Our Lady of Sorrows.
Sam resembles the irascible Sully of Nobody’s Fool, a novel about another largely absent father, whose son Peter has grown up and left their upstate New York town to become a college professor but has now returned for a visit. Memorably portrayed by Paul Newman in the movie version of the book, Sully lives in rented rooms that look like “those of a man who had just gone through a ruinous divorce, whose wife had taken everything of value.” But he’s lived that way most of his life. His ex-wife has tried to keep him away from their son, as if Peter might get infected by the contact. When Sully grumbles that she’s trying to raise Peter above his station, she says no—she is “just trying to raise their son above Sully’s station.” Even so, Sully is a problem solver, someone who gets things done for his landlady and the people, like Carl Roebuck, employing him; the novel turns on the irony that his successful son needs him—more so than Sully would have imagined.
The travails of Russo’s characters can defeat even the most well-intentioned and responsible of them, however. Miles Roby, the protagonist of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Empire Falls (2001), had an absentee father much like Sam Hall or Sully, and he’s resolved to be a better parent to his teenage daughter. Still, he can’t keep his marriage together: his wife, seeking something more exciting, takes up with Walt, owner of a chain of fitness clubs who calls himself the “Silver Fox.” Miles remains a presence at Saint Catherine’s church, which he’s helping to paint, and he regularly attends mass with his daughter, who observes that the problem with her mother was that she “had replaced Catholicism with aerobics.” In an interview, Russo described Miles’s restaurant as “the moral center of the town,” even as people in Empire Falls consider him a failure—and Miles agrees with that assessment. “If Empire Falls is a kind of endangered species of a town, Miles is kind of an endangered species of a man,” Russo explains.
Though Russo’s characters often debate whether they should have left town, as others have done, he rarely disparages their choice to stay. He writes in Elsewhere of a cousin who remained. “Gloversville is his home,” Russo explained. “It breaks his heart on a daily basis, but that doesn’t change the fact. His father’s buried in the cemetery there, along with both his paternal and maternal grandparents, their lives and deaths tied, directly or indirectly” to the lost leather trade. In the 2007 novel Bridge of Sighs, Russo explores that fraught choice over more than 600 pages, telling the story of Louis Charles Lynch. All Lynch wants is to spend his days in the unremarkable upstate town of Thomaston, where he’s inherited a convenience store from his father. His wife, Sarah, a once-promising artist who studied at Cooper Union in Manhattan, came back to make a family with him. Their childhood friend Bobby, by contrast, fled Thomaston after high school and has become an internationally famous artist. But Bobby has brawled his way through the years, destroyed his and other marriages in a series of empty affairs, and resents even those buying his paintings. He’s never visited Thomaston, but after 40 years, Sarah observes him at a Manhattan gallery opening, where a portrait of her that he did from memory hangs. In a letter to him, she describes the moment, after her mother died, when she decided that Thomaston was where she wanted to stay, “where it was warm and safe and good.” She tells Bobby that she never regretted that decision.
Even though most families are hurting in Russo’s fiction, the family, broken or whole, remains central to his work. In a commencement address at Colby College, Russo proffered the kind of life advice that college graduates rarely hear these days and that might have seemed unlikely coming from someone with his tough childhood. “Have kids,” he told the graduates. “Don’t worry that you can’t afford them, though it’s true, you can’t. Don’t worry too much about the world they’ll be born into, which will suck, because that’s what the world mostly does. You won’t be a fully vested citizen until you have someone you love more than life to hand this imperfect world over to. And don’t worry that you may have poor parenting skills, which you will.”
In Nobody’s Fool, Russo flips the script of his own life, questioning the notion that fleeing home and family is assurance of something better. Sully’s son Peter, the college instructor, isn’t just visiting, it turns out; he’s deeply unhappy. He’s been denied tenure, is cheating on his wife with a graduate student, and has trouble coping with the frustrations of being a father to his three raucous boys. He’s come back home, to the fictional North Bath in upstate New York, because he intends to quit his college teaching job and go back to work, at least temporarily, with his father, who has trouble understanding why anyone who spent years earning a Ph.D. would want to do manual labor. “Everybody has a doctorate,” Peter tells his father. “If you’d stayed in school another month or two they’d have probably given you one.”
Part of Peter’s unease becomes more apparent from Russo’s subsequent novel, Straight Man, a wickedly funny, harshly critical look at a college English department beset by petty politics, institutional paranoia, professional jealousy, and marital infidelity. Published in 1997, the book is a road map to what college campuses have become today, where academics wield gender as a tool of career advancement and pursue research from ideologically fixed positions. It opens with the narrator, the interim head of the English department, getting smacked in the face with a spiral notebook by a feminist writer whose poetry he had criticized. It ends with a group of professors trapped in a room they can’t figure how to leave—though, as the narrator wryly observes, the solution would have been obvious to any group of bricklayers or plumbers. “But this room contained, unfortunately, a group of academics, and we couldn’t quite believe what had happened to us.” Everybody’s Fool finds Peter still in North Bath, ten years later. Getting out of town isn’t always so easy.
There are no miraculous escapes in this world. Russo’s towns don’t suddenly discover oil lurking below, and rich investors don’t swoop in to build a northeast version of Disneyland out near the interstate. But his stories are more comic than tragic, and characters earn small victories that keep them moving forward. Russo likens those moments to the Christian notion of grace. “It is not huge,” he said, “but they are visited by small gifts.” Some of his creations are even ornery enough to refuse to see their lives as failures. “If my father was in the room,” Russo once told a lecture audience, “he would say, ‘Failure, what failure?’ He would say, ‘Hell, don’t talk about failure to me. I have done exactly what I wanted to do and had a hell of a good time.’ ”
Top Photo: Russo grew up in Gloversville, New York, a small town powered by a manufacturing economy until jobs fled overseas. (PATRICK POST/HOLLANDSE HOOGTE/ REDUX)