Saturday, June 30, 2012

Mohawk -Richard Russo

Harry who runs the 'Mohawk Grill' restaurant has a calender which is out of date by a year.This is because "... whoever gave the calendar the year before didn't give him a new one this year. The months are the same and Harry doesn't mind being a few days off".  This in a nutshell symbolizes the characters in Richard Russo's debut novel 'Mohawk', a slice of small town America. In fact this mentality is symptomatic of many characters in Russo's works, a mindset where people are just waiting for something to happen instead of initiating it. They may dislike the life in their town, feel suffocated by it, but they would rather suffer silently or crib about it rather than doing something about it. 

Mohawk a fictional town is decaying, it's not yet a ghost town (like the one's in Juan Rulfo's works) but it will soon get there. The tannery industry that provided jobs to the townsmen is dying out and with it the entire town economy and indeed the town itself. The basic theme of the novel is one which is explored in his later works too, but in this debut work Russo has tried a more sprawling canvas. If he has concentrated on a few characters in his later works, here he has tried to cram in many characters, attempting to give each one them their own individuality. There is 'Anne' a divorced mother who is living with her parents in what can only politely be termed as a claustrophobic atmosphere. Oh, she is and has been in love with her cousin's husband 'Dan' for many years now, who also reciprocates it. It is a largely unconsummated affair (with rare sexual trysts). 'Dallas Younger' Anne's ex-husband is going through life as in a pot induced daze, bumping into the myriad issues that life brings up from time to time, not knowing why such things keep happening to him. For instance, when he goes to the laundry he most often misplaces his shirts and comes back with shirts of another person, the result being that he is mostly wearing another' shirts. There is also 'Randall' their son, 'Wild Bill' a mentally challenged young man, Anne's sick father, her cribbing mother. 

With such a motley crew of characters one would expect the novel of very engaging and indeed it starts off in such a manner, but sadly soon degenerates into a show-off, manipulative one. Now, all art is in some way manipulative in that the artist tries to make the reader/viewer/listener get into a mindset that he has planned. The issue arises when it becomes too obvious and the flow of the novel seems to be forced. That's what happens here and you can sense Russo trying very hard to impress us. In an attempt to define his characters clearly he overdoes it, the result being that most characters are almost saying to you "look at me, I am not a fictional character, I am a blood and flesh one, so I am a great character". After sometime you get tired of all the (un)subtle hints dropped in passing about the characters which are probably meant to add layers to them.  Like Russo tries so hard to impress upon us the gravity of  the hidden affair between Anne and Dan, their frustration at being apart even though they love each other, but it doesn't impact us much. To digress a bit, a similar theme of is handled much better by Russo himself in his Bridge Of Sighs, where he gives us so many subtle layers which are open to our interpretation. What we feel here though is that Anne and Dan better stop cribbing, grow up and get on with their lives. Actually this is a cruel feeling given what they have gone through, but Russo is to be blamed for making us unsympathetic towards these characters which surely deserve our sympathy. There is also a supposedly mysterious sub-plot involving Anne's father which promises much but doesn't result in anything other than a convoluted trigger to the events that happen before the end. Oh yes, I should also mention the events that happen on a stormy night before the end. Of course there is no rule that a character shouldn't have his/her epiphanies or that things shouldn't come to a head on a stormy night, but when you see multiple strands coming to head on single night, it just seems to be convenient way for the author to tie up every thing.

Ironically, the novel is saved from being a disaster by the very characters on which Russo doesn't spend too much time, a clear indication that the adages 'less is more' and 'don't tell but show' do work. There are a lot of small moments which lift the novel from the morass of forced sentimentality it is mired in. There is a mention in passing (a couple of paragraphs) about Dallas's younger brother 'Dan' who passed away of cancer when he was just 30 and his daughter was one. When he came to know about his terminal illness, Dan got a big loan and bought purchases for nearly 20 years for his daughter. Consider this, a young father in the prime of his life suddenly comes to know that he has very little time to live. What else can we expect in such a situation. That's why buys presents for all the birthdays, Christmases, thanksgiving on which he would not be present. This in itself could be developed into an excellent short story. There is also the moment at the end where Dallas meets his brother's wife 'Lorraine' at the hospital. What happens then is one of the truly goosebumps raising moments that I have read in recent years. I am not one given to easy sentimentality and what Dallas does could be seen as selfish/idiotic/crazy and also as a manifestation of the hidden human spirit at the same time. It's an ambiguous moment, but one which affects us in a way that the other forced moments in the novel do not.
I have mentioned Dallas multiple times now and it is for a reason. He is the character with whom we empathize the most. He is a cad, compulsive drinker, gambler, a person who tries to do the correct thing but most often ends up totally screwing it up, even if he didn't want too. Like he could start for a lunch with his ex-wife and son, but end up in a gambling den or he could remember his niece's birthday in the middle of the night and go to wish her.He is like a kid in many ways, looking wide eyed at the things that happened, not understanding how they happened and that he actually had a part to play in them. But with all this, he comes across as the most honestly crafted character in the entire novel. Russo doesn't try to impose him on his and due to that he is the one we can relate to most. The things that Russo keeps in shadows are ultimately the one that capture our attention. His friendship with Benny is one such. Friends from youth, Benny now owns a automobile workshop where Dallas works. It's difficult to pin down what works between the two. Both of them have been in a terrible fight when young, but never seem to bring it up now. Benny puts with Dallas carousing around without coming to work. Of course Dallas is skilled worker and Benny also likes to join Dallas in raising hell in the bars and gambling dens. But is that the only reason why he puts up with Dallas? The refreshing thing is that there is no declaration of undying friendship or any such thing. It's just 2 guys who are very comfortable with each other, enjoying each other's company and friendship. I would personally love to know more about Dallas and his life. And of course, as in his other works Russo captures perfectly the rhythms of small town life, the bar where people gather to gossip as much as to eat, the aspirations of the characters, their stoic acceptance of their lot in life etc. 

Those these things salvage the novel to a great extent ultimately it remains only a fair enough read, a novel which suffers from the author's over enthusiasm in impressing his readers, maybe due to the fact that it was his first novel. Whatever the reason, it is definitively not a patch on his later works. Read it if you have read his other works and want to complete his oeuvre. Others read the other novels/short stories. This one can wait.

No comments:

Post a Comment