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Mohawk by Richard Russo

Mohawk (1986)

by Richard Russo

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Richard Russo has long been one of my favorite authors. His books, Empire Falls, Nobody's Fool, and Straight Man are American classics. So I decided to go back and read his first novel, Mohawk, written more than 20 years ago. Again we're talking small town upstate New York, lives of ordinary people and characters that leave an impression. It was interesting to see the beginnings of Russo's plot sketching. In this one, 67 small chapters intertwine the stories of 6-8 characters, characters that in his later writing become some of my favorite. Harry, who owns the Mohawk Grill, serves breakfast to the men who come downstairs from the all night poker game, men who play the horses, drink too much and dole out opinions freely. The NYTs noted that " The writing, moreover, is brisk, colorful and often witty. These qualities and the impressive scope of the novel bode well for Richard Russo's future, "
How right they were. ( )
  novelcommentary | Aug 2, 2017 |
I am somewhat familiar with the Mohawk Valley between Utica and Schenectady so this book had resonance to me. The "Mohawk" village in the novel surely is Gloversville where there was a flourishing leather industry until the mid-twentieth century. Mohawk is one of a number of small towns on the "outs", where nothing much is happening except young people leaving for greener pastures. (There is an actual village named Mohawk and it's a lot like Gloversville.)

Russo captures the lives of the town's inhabitants well. They understand that things will not get better for them; in a sense, they are trapped by history and family ties that they know they will never escape.

Anne Younger, a bright and attractive woman, did not follow until too late her father's advice to leave Mohawk for the greater opportunities in more prosperous places. She married Dallas Younger, a high school star who was self-centered and unreliable. Their marriage did not last and Anne, after a stint in the big city returns to Mohawk with her young son, Randall. Anne lives with father and mother, Mather and Mrs. Grouse. Mather is a reticent and principled man, retired from the tannery, somewhat austere and friendless. Mrs. Grouse is a bit punctilious and difficult. Anne has been in love for years with Dan Wood, the husband of her cousin. Dallas is not closely connected to his family, often drunk and involved in gambling.

Wild Bill Gaffney is the son of Rory, a domineering man, retired from the tannery where Mather also worked. Wild Bill is mentally retarded from some incident vaguely described that we later learn was a severe beating by Rory. His uncle, Rory's brother, is the town cop who seems ineffectual and held in low esteem by the towns people. Harry Saunders runs the Mohawk Grill, a hangout and social gathering spot in the town.

While the story is much focused on portraying the lives of the characters in this decaying town, many of whom are of low character and shiftlessness, there is a plot line involving Randall. Randall grows up and leaves for college where after a few semesters he drops out and returns to Mohawk, planning on somehow avoiding the draft (this around 1972). Randall takes up with BG, a girl a few years younger who is staying in a trailer behind Rory's house. Rory has been stealing hides from the tannery and enlists Randall to take them downstate. Randall plans on double crossing Rory, but ends up in a situation where Officer Gaffney (who has been going mad) shoots Rory, Wild Bill and then himself. Randall is charged with murder, but his story, backed up by BG, is so strong that the charges are dropped. At the novel's conclusion, Randall runs away to keep from being drafted.

Anne's cousin, Diana, dies and Anne could at last fulfill her and Dan's desire for each other. It isn't clear whether this is going to happen and it looks more likely that the lives of the people of Mohawk will continue on the same plane as before.

What makes Russo's novel so good is his depiction of the characters. They are trapped by circumstances that they can't or won't attempt to control. Their lives are linked to Mohawk's fortunes and not much positive with happen to them or the town. ( )
  stevesmits | May 29, 2017 |

Richard Russo, born in 1949, from upstate New York, is one of American's foremost living novelists. After Mohawk, his first novel, Russo went on to author seven other novels, including The Risk Pool, Empire Falls, Nobody's Fool and Straight Man.

Compelling portrait of small town USA, Richard Russo's small town is located in the state of New York during the year 1970 and features the interlinking lives of seven main characters, men and women, young and old, but in many ways the year could range from 1915 to 2015 and the locale could be any of the 50 states since there is an undeniable sameness about what it means to grow up, live and, if you do not leave, die in a small town. Here are snapshots from the novel, snapshots easily recognized by anyone who has ever lived in a small town:

Mrs. Grouse and Anne, her 35-year old daughter, find old Mather Grouse collapsed on the living room floor. Mrs. Grouse demands nothing to be done but call an ambulance. Anne defies her mother and gets her father breathing, thus saving his life. One of Anne’s friends, a guy named Dan, tells her, “You’re old enough to know better than to disobey your mother. Just who did you think you were, saving your old man’s life after you’d been expressly forbidden to?”

Randall is extremely intelligent and learns rapidly, qualities much appreciated at the private school he attended prior to coming to the small town of Mohawk. But once enrolled in Mohawk High School, everyone snickered and sneered. Randall quickly learned what he had to do to be accepted by his classmates: occasionally flub up and play dumb. As Richard Russo writes: “Perfection rankled just about everyone, including the teachers, whereas mediocrity made people feel comfortable.”

At the very center of small town USA - the high school football team

Old Mather Grouse has been afflicted with serious health issues these last few years revolving around his lungs and breathing. Mather listens to his wife’s tuneless humming and when the sound becomes very faint and he knows she is at the other end of their house, he pulls out a loose board above the cellar window and removes a plastic bag he’d hidden with some Camels and matches. Mather then puts on his windbreaker and goes out for a solitary walk – the high point of his day.

Henry is the owner of the Mohawk Grill on Main Street. He is the one man in town who befriends Wild Bill Gaffney, who never uses the front door but always enters by the door at the rear in the alley. Although Richard Russo doesn’t have the objective narrator or have any of the Mohawk residents use the well-worn term, it is quite clear Wild Bill is what is referred to traditionally as the village idiot. And, perhaps predictably, Wild Bill Gaffney is a key player in the unfolding drama for the novel’s central characters.

The gloomiest times in a small town can be holidays, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas. There is one telling scene on Thanksgiving Day when we read: “Then Dallas borrowed fifty from Harry and joined the poker game upstairs. The other players were family men who’s seen enough of their families and grown depressed by the sight of the turkey carcass.” Ah, when all else fails, at least there is the reliable second-floor hide-out where you can drink whiskey and do some illegal gambling.

One of the most heart wrenching parts of the novel is where old Mather Grouse reflects on the future of his bright, beautiful daughter: “What if, despite her great gifts, she also ended up trapped? Would she pity some poor boy and marry him, set up house in some rundown second floor flat to wait patiently for him to come home from the corner bar, their meager meal sitting idly on the back burner? In another year would she be pregnant beneath her flowing graduation robes?” I’m quite sure this reflection has been repeated thousands of times by small town fathers and mothers as they pondered the future of their small town sons and daughters, particularly if those sons and daughters exhibit potential that will quickly be snuffed out if they never leave their small town.

Here are two of my favorite quotes about small towns:

“In small towns, news travels at the speed of boredom.”
― Carlos Ruiz Zafón

“People fear anyone who differs from what is considered normal, and in a small town the idea of normal can be as narrow as the streets.” -- Elizabeth Chandler

Lastly, here is a micro fiction of mine published years ago:

Small Town Mentality

From watching their Fourth of July parade and going to their county fair you wouldn’t ever guess this small town is home to such sordid, twisted, sadistic minds.

A few outsiders think it starts when kids bob for apples. The adults hold their heads underwater until their little fingers turn blue and clutch at the air.

Although, some say it begins at home, at night, behind closed doors, when every light in town is required to be put out.

( )
  GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
The town of Mohawk has seen “better” days---days in which the local tanneries and leather mills were thriving and a man could make an honest living—or a dishonest one, if he preferred—by working in them. Now, cheap imports, synthetics, and investigations of corruption are taking away the profitability of the leather industry; decades of chemical pollution have turned Mohawk’s creeks and ground water deadly; there isn’t much to recommend life in this small upstate New York town anymore. Richard Russo explores the intertwined lives of several residents who, whether voluntarily or inevitably, find themselves tied to the community as it goes to pieces. It’s hard to admire any of the characters in this novel, or to sympathize with most of them. They all seem to be stuck in a mediocre life with no clue how to improve even a few minutes of it at a time. Those with principles are just as miserable as those without. I’m not sure what the take-away should be from this tale, and it suffers from a few “first novel” shortcomings. I certainly didn’t love it, but if I had never read Russo before, I believe I would have seen promise here, and probably would have felt that I wanted to try him again. As it is, I know he’s proved himself capable of better stuff, and I’m glad to have seen how he started.

February 2016 ( )
  laytonwoman3rd | Mar 1, 2016 |
Straight Man is one of my favorite novels of all time, so when I saw that Russo had also written a novel set in a small town in central New York, I had to buy it immediately. I've finally maneuvered free-time for reading into my schedule---what a pleasure it was! Seeing that I live right next to "Mohawk, New York," the town in which the novel is set, I felt even more connected to the characters as names of all of the surrounding areas of my life kept coming up (Even though there isn't a Mohawk County).

Russo has a way of describing deep and sensitive characters and plot events with levity. It's pure enjoyment to read, and at the same time gives valuable vicarious life experience. I just want to say I love Mather Grouse and how could anyone even tolerate the obnoxious sisters Milly and Mrs. Grouse--but you love them anyway! I saw all of the insufferable flaws of half a dozen people in my life in these characters, but their Mohawkian fictional equivalents are nonetheless lovable. So I feel that I can face, say, my ex (another Dallas Younger), with a bit more tolerance at this point.

Mather Grouse hits home when he tells his daughter that "People sometimes get in the habit of being loyal to a mistake. They can devote their whole lives to it." Adelle has tried to tell me as much, but Mather seemed to be more credible, I suppose. I have this quote on an index card and I tossed it carelessly into my disorganized desk so that I can find it when fate allows.

I'm reminded why I love reading so much, and I'm inspired to read "She's Come Undone" again--I'm missing a female character that I can really relate to. I've been reading too many stories with male protagonists lately.

Enjoy! I HIGHLY recommend this book, especially to locals! ( )
  engpunk77 | Aug 14, 2015 |
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But Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope.

- Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
For Barbara, Emily, and Kate

And for Dick LaVarn

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The back door to the Mohawk Grill opens on an alley it shares with the junior high.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679753826, Paperback)

The town of Mohawk may be provincial but it's far from sleepy. Its inhabitants seem perpetually awake, and not only on Saturday at two in the morning, "when the bars are closing and people are forced to consider the prospect of returning home with so many of the night's dreams unfulfilled." Richard Russo focuses on several characters who are leading lives of extreme--and extremely funny--longing. Dallas Younger, for instance, hit his peak playing high-school football, and it's been downhill from there. He has no idea what women, particularly his ex-wife, are thinking, which makes him really glad there are none in on the local poker game. And he's still at a loss to figure out why he has no relationship with his son (probably something to do with the fact that he never sees him). Even the calendar at the local grill is for 1966, since the owner figures "the months are the same" and being a few days out of whack doesn't matter. This same man has a private betting system. Choosing among the top jockeys isn't that hard--he tries to assess their current levels of pride, concentration, and desire. Richard Russo shows us that these same qualities exist in his hard-luck characters.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:47 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Mohawk, New York, is one of those small towns that lie almost entirely on the wrong side of the tracks. Its citizens, too, have fallen on hard times. Dallas Younger, a star athlete in high school, now drifts from tavern to poker game, losing money, and, inevitablym another set of false teeth. His ex-wife, Anne, is stuck in a losing battle with her mother over care of her sick father. And their son, Randall, is deliberately neglecting his school work because in a place like Mohawk is doesn't pay to be too smart.… (more)

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