This is the first Russo book I’ve read and, as promised, it depicts life in small, failing New England mill town with such immediacy and accurancy that anyone who has ever lived in one will recognise the town and its people. By putting other names to these characters, they would become true portraits of people I’ve known: a daughter held in thrall to an over-controlling mother, a feckless man who doesn’t understand why none of his schemes succeeds, an overly honest man who is rejected by his co-workers yet is only too aware of his own failings, a too-smart young man who unnerves those who prefer the comfort of mediocrity in their fellows, a couple who—married to others—do not act on their feelings.
Yet Russo manages to depict these people in all their complexity, avoiding the easy stereotypes. I particularly liked the way he captured the subtle ties and dependencies between these people. There is something deeply human going on here, something that stands against the greed and selfishness that often seem to me to make up the foundation of human nature. Even Neolithic societies, it has been argued (see On Deep History and the Brain by Daniel Lord Smail), were structured as dominance hierarchies where those on top kept subordinates in line by random acts of violence. While this rule of terror seemed to occur only in the settlements (the hunter-gatherers being more egalitarian) it is still disconcerting to think that an amoral greed for power is so deeply engrained in us.
I’ve wandered a bit from the town of Mohawk, New York, but my point is that Russo brings out the curious way we tolerate each other’s failings and sometimes show a rare and remarkable generosity. It is unusual to find, outside of war stories, something that captures the companionships of men, the way they are with each other in times of boredom and times of stress. By placing them in an unremarkable backwater like Mohawk, Russo presents these characters’ ordinary interactions and highlights their moments of transcendent connection.
Some of the places, such as the bar and grill, are characters in themselves. The old hospital, which is in the process of being torn down, plays an important role in the story. Its emergency room was a place to see your neighbors on Saturday nights after the bars closed and victims of bar fights and domestic abuse began to trickle in. It is a fitting symbol for these people, all of whom have been damaged: some physically, such as Dan who is tied to a wheelchair after an auto accident and Wild Bill who has been left mentally deficient after a mysterious incident in his youth; some financially, such as Anne who gives up opportunity after opportunity to care for the parents with whom she cannot connect; and some emotionally, such as Dallas who cannot get past the death of the brother who was his ballast and keel.
The story unfolds naturally out of these characters—none of McEwan’s diaboli ex machina here—and brings their intertwined fates to a stunning climax. Russo does a great job of maintaining suspense by revealing some secrets and withholding others. The pacing here is excellent. There are several different story threads that in equal measure make up the pattern of the book. While this kind of tapestry approach to plotting certainly reinforces the sense of a varied community, I usually prefer novels with a single main narrative and main character, enriched with many subplots and minor characters. Still, I enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.