The town of Mohawk, New York, seems very similar to Empire Falls, the setting of another Russo novel. It’s another rustbelt town on the skids supported by the leather industry, which is now being found responsible for polluting the town. Of Russo’s works, it is these tales of ordinary people in rustbelt towns that I think are best.
This novel centers mostly around one extended family but with plenty of auxiliary characters. Dallas Younger is a feckless, unreliable but kind mechanic divorced from Anne, who has moved back to Mohawk from New York largely because she’s in love with Dan Wood, the wheelchair-bound husband of her cousin. Anne’s father, Mather Grouse, is known for his upright life, but he has a secret involving Wild Bill Gaffney, a mentally handicapped young man who was in love with Anne when they were in high school.
Russo’s characters are flawed but mostly likable and fully realized. This novel has a complex plot that is masterfully handled. The novel skips from 1967, when Anne’s son Randall is unhappily attending middle school in Mohawk, trying to avoid a group of bullies and purposefully scoring a bit low on his homework because it doesn’t do to be so smart, to 1971 when he is 18, has quit college, and is avoiding the draft.
For a long time, I avoided reading Russo’s novels because they sounded depressing. They are not. Instead, they demonstrate a warm understanding of and fondness for human nature. This novel sustains me in my belief that his rustbelt novels are his best.