SCHENECTADY This story has been updated to include a correct reference to the location of Colby College.
Richard Russo gave a passive shrug when he heard about the latest dubious designation attributed to Gloversville.
Earlier this week, the celebrated author’s hometown was found to have the highest poverty rate in the state among families with related children. Gloversville also leads the state in the percentage of households using food stamps or similar assistance.
“I wish I could say I was surprised,” he said solemnly during a book signing at Union College’s Memorial Chapel on Thursday.
For Russo, 62, Gloversville’s downtrodden nature is all too real. No matter how much distance he places between himself and the city, he always finds his hometown at an arm’s length away.
Caricatures of Gloversville seem to bleed into all of Russo’s fiction. Everything from its bleak post-industrial imagery to the nearly omnipresent sense of futility that he felt there during his youth.
Except that he escaped. Russo graduated from Bishop Burke High School in 1967 and went on to secure a doctoral degree from the University of Arizona.
He launched a career in teaching at the Southern Illinois University and later at Colby College in Maine before authoring the novel “Mohawk” in 1986. He’s since authored another seven books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Empire Falls.”
Despite his success, Russo still finds a piece of himself metaphorically entrenched in the failings of his hometown. He credits the friction between his success and the ongoing struggles of Gloversville for creating a sense of quasi-guilt — a feeling that maybe his future should have been doomed like so many others from the city — that empowers his creative ability.
“That friction and that conflict I suspect is what drives me as an artist,” he said.
Russo alluded to his inspiration as a writer and his departure from Gloversville during Union’s Founders Day convocation. The college celebrated the 217th anniversary of its chartering by inviting Russo, an author who uses his memories of the Mohawk Valley to shape his creative work.
Russo’s novel “Empire Falls” earned him a Pulitzer for fiction in 2001. He’s also authored a number of short stories and helped write the screenplay for the 1998 film “Twilight.”
“To put it simply, Richard Russo is a great American author,” Union President Stephen Ainlay said in his remarks.
Russo, who lives in Maine, spoke of the irony he feels in being apart from his hometown while using it as a source for his writing. He acknowledged distancing himself from the city, even though he often returns to it in his literary work.
“One of the great paradoxes of my life as a writer is that on the one hand I very seldom return to Gloversville anymore, where as figuratively speaking I seldom leave it,” Russo said during his remarks. “Anyone looking for Gloversville in my novels starting with ‘Mohawk’ in 1986 will have no trouble finding it. Gloversville and upstate New York run in my veins the way Dublin ran in Joyce’s.”
Still, while the attributes of Gloversville frequently permeate Russo’s work, the city is never mentioned by name. But that is expected to change next fall, when he releases “Elsewhere,” a memoir he started penning shortly after his mother’s death.
Russo read a passage from the memoir relaying a conversation he had with his cousin Greg Gottung during Russo’s daughter’s wedding in London in 2007. Over flutes of Prosecco, the two trade stories about their worst jobs growing up, including his cousin’s memory of working in a tannery beamhouse.
Russo’s narrative goes on to describe in great detail the foul and dangerous process of the tanning, from the loading docks where fresh animal skins are pulled from sweltering rail cars to the mill inside where the heavy hides are treated in huge vats of caustic chemicals.
He spoke of how workers would strip off protective gloves to better grip the chemical-laden hides and how the chemicals would eventually strip away the skin from workers’ hands.
“This is just the beginning,” he said, reading from the passage. “This is just the beamhouse’s way of saying hello, just when you want to say goodbye.”
Russo recalled his own job working road construction with his father during the summer, and how he pondered not going back to college. He recalled feeling a sense of guilt for being at a relatively opulent wedding ceremony, thoroughly detached from the rigors of the blue-collar industrial town where he was raised.
“Guilty to be where I am, like I cheated destiny,” he said. “Or worse yet, that I swapped destinies with some poor sot.”