I must have missed the Richard Russo memoir when it first came out, but there it was this past Sunday afternoon on the table of new paperbacks. A favorite novelist of mine – and I had missed the announcement of this publication?
I understand how that could have happened. Amazon records that the hardcover edition of Elsewhere appeared last fall – on October 30, 2012, to be precise. Two weeks earlier I had appeared in a courtroom to lay a major chapter of my life to rest.
I am approaching the anniversary of those weeks. I expect to find out lots of things that escaped my notice during the fall months of 2012.
Richard Russo is a source of happy memories, though, starting with my reading of Empire Falls ten years ago. Set in a small town in Maine, the novel has a central character whose life I wanted to keep following no matter how dangerously close to permanent discouragement it came. The novel that had earned its author a Pulitzer Prize was a profoundly satisfying read.
In August 2009 I attended a reading that Russo gave after the publication of another of his novels, That Old Cape Magic. The reading, a fundraiser for the Portland Library, was held in what used to be called the First Parish Meeting House. I sat in one of the box pews in the crowded church where Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his family had attended services during his youth in Portland.
That evening I joined in the eruptions of appreciative laughter that greeted Russo’s reading of the opening chapter of his novel. I looked around at times and found it tempting to envision a bookish Maine life for myself one day. I sensed the chance of meeting local people who would understand my reading a Mary Oliver poem at the start of every day, my visiting museums and bookstores and old graveyards, my sitting in churches, my spending two to three hours a weekend writing for the pleasure of it.
I took a picture this past Sunday of the Russo memoir on its table in the bookstore, aware of another book waiting for me back home. I would not go to sleep that night until I had finished The Burgess Boys, a novel by another Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, Elizabeth Strout. In this book characters shift back and forth between a town in coastal Maine and New York City with its adult sophistication and social expectations. Strout’s tale keeps a reader attuned to the transformations that loom in any life, no matter how hard each character works to keep that life predictable and manageable.
The final chapter of The Burgess Boys opens in the Portland bus station. I could barely believe Sunday night that I had ended up there, reading about a building familiar to me from repeated visits to the city over the past five years. I recognized the plastic seating, the vending machines, the taxis lined up just beyond the large glass windows, each bus pulling into the lot “like a friendly oversize caterpillar.”
My own life had felt capable of eventual transformation as I used to sit in that station, my future detaching itself more and more mysteriously from patterns of the past. Maine had stood for a great wilderness into which I might get to wander.
Over the past several years I have become better acquainted with Maine. It hasn’t heard the last of me.