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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Mohawk by Richard Russo

I have resisted reading Mohawk for years because even though Richard Russo is one of my favorite authors it can be dissatisfying to go back to an author’s first novel. Often the talent is observable, but the rough edges have yet to be smoothed out. If you’re already familiar with the later artistic successes, watching the author struggle to wrangle together characters and plot can be disillusioning.

Such is largely the case with Mohawk. The classic elements of a Russo novel are all present: the dysfunctional families, the overbearing patriarchs and matriarchs, the thwarted ambitions, the lovable but frustrating ne’er-do-wells. Even Russo’s prose is just as readable and captivating as it is elsewhere. But Mohawk is too ambitious, the author’s confidence out of step with his material.

Mohawk takes its name from the upstate New York small town where the novel’s events take place, in two large chunks in 1966 and 1972. Russo follows a large cast of characters as their family secrets catch up with them and force the action to a head. There’s Dallas Younger, an irresponsible drunk and inveterate gambler; his ex-wife Anne Grouse, who can’t make her aged mother face the reality of her dying husband; their son Randall, whose youthful act of heroism can’t save him from the curse of his genes; Dan Wood, Anne’s old love, confined to a wheelchair and sharing a house with his prematurely old wife Diana and her seemingly immortal mother.

There are also the Gaffneys, a family which lurks over the novel rather than really inhabit it. Rory Gaffney, who has been stealing from the local tanneries for years with the tacit approval of his police-officer brother, and Rory’s son Bill, whose severe punishment for a mild childhood crime has left him brain-damaged and incapable of speech.

Russo weaves his tale in short chapters from multiple perspectives, and has a way of allowing all the most important events of the plot to happen offstage. He also frustratingly withholds key information from the reader for needlessly long stretches of time. The desired effect, to heighten the impact of the final revelations, is in fact thwarted by the mechanics of the device.

As the novel spirals toward its climactic tragedy, the flaw in Mohawk becomes glaringly obvious. There are too many people and too many stories to wrap up that no one is well-served in the end. The novel would need hundreds more pages to do justice to all the people and plotlines it cheerlessly discards.

Mohawk contains enough aspects of later, better Russo novels that it is obvious that Russo was a genius in the making, but Mohawk is not a fully formed product, and as such it disappoints.

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