Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #67: Mohawk by Richard Russo
Mohawk by Richard Russo is one of his earliest novels, and is unfortunately not up to the standards of his later works Straight Man and Empire Falls. Russo’s well-known ability to portray the lives of small-town ordinary folk in all their tragi-comedic fullness, clearly got a start with books like Mohawk, but rather than the penetrating drama and poignancy and humor one has come to expect of Russo’s later works, Mohawk reads a bit too much like Peyton Place.
The story takes place—as do many of Russo’s novels—in an economically dying northeastern factory town, Mohawk, and revolves around two cousins, Anne and Diana. Anne is married and divorced from an alcoholic, gambling but sometimes charming ne’er-do-well who fathered her child, and Diana is married to a man who has long loved and been loved by Anne but remains with Diana. Both women live with their aged mothers, sisters who are narrow-minded, rigid, bitter and soul-draining for their daughters.
A secondary plot focuses on the Gaffney brothers, one an incompetent cop nearing his retirement and the other a retired tannery worker who brain-damaged his own son with a beating years earlier. That son had been in love with the teenaged Anne and decades later still moons over her from afar, while Anne’s father, also a retired tannery worker whose lifelong principles had set him at odds with the brutish thieving Gaffney, wastes away in his old age in guilt over the boy’s beating, which his complaint had triggered, and in fear of the Gaffneys.
Another decade passes, Anne’s father is now dead, and Anne’s son is grown, a college drop-out, a draft dodger returned to Mohawk determined to somehow settle scores with the Gaffneys. There are subplots aplenty, some of them confusing and some well-drawn, but the inevitable confrontation between the young man and the hated Gaffneys ends in a hail of bullets, and the story continues to eke out a prolonged conclusion, with Russo tying up loose ends in too predictable a fashion.
The big question that remained largely unanswered for me is why anyone would remain in Mohawk. Anne gets trapped there when her father dies and her increasingly senile mother can’t be abandoned, but the rest of them should have left a long time ago. Russo’s books on small-town life are an acknowledged reflection of his own upbringing, and the characters with whom he so effectively peoples his stories—the handful of salt-of-the earth types, the intelligent women who nonetheless can’t resist the pull of inertia, and the bullies, drunks, down-trodden and intellectually-challenged who create that inertia—are clearly Russo’s image of small-town Americans everywhere. But there was just not enough in Mohawk to yield a sense of optimism, a moral lesson, or even a good belly-laugh. I’m glad Russo’s come a long way since.