I’ve decided to (slowly but surely) read through Richard Russo’s bibliography over the next year or two, starting with his first novel, Mohawk. Set in a small leather-making town on the decline, Mohawk chronicles over a dozen lives ranging three generations. Is it a strong first step or does Russo trip out the gate?
I have a complicated relationship with my home town. It’s a small town of about 1500 people on the East Coast, a failed mining town that became a failed fishing town. The population declines each year as new grads move away to
places with actual jobs greener pastures and the aging population does what aging populations do.
With its lack of opportunity, not-so-veiled racism, and inability to change, it’s a place that feels stuck 30 years in the past. If not for my family I’d have little to no reason to ever go back there, and yet, I want to appreciate where I’m from.
So I set about to read through the career of Richard Russo, hailed chronicler of American small town life. I debated going straight to his more celebrated novels like Empire Falls or Bridge of Sighs, but I like the idea of each novel getting better and better (for the most part) as I move through his career.
Hopefully they do get better, because all I’m feeling after reading Mohawk is an overwhelming feeling of “meh.”
There’s not much wrong with Mohawk, there’s just not much right with it either. The characters are enjoyable enough, but few are memorable. Fewer still are worth caring about. Russo clearly started his career with a steady hand: he writes with the assurance of an established star. But his grasp of the dramatic is almost nonexistent at this point. Nothing really happens in Mohawk, at least nothing that’s going to make you grab one of your friends and tell them to read the book. I can’t really think of a reason I’d recommend Mohawk to anyone. That being said, there’s not enough of a reason for me to dissuade anyone, either.
The Quintessential 3 Out of 5
I’ve been told that it’s often Russo’s secondary characters who really shine, but I found them more distracting than anything else. I’m never one to enjoy a novel that focuses on 10-12 characters (isn’t that ridiculous?), but it’s especially frustrating when each of them feels like they lack any kind of voice. Mohawk is described as a family-on-family drama, yet half the time it’s hard to even remember who’s who in this little squabble. As a result, the secondary characters feel like added weight.
Some aspects of the novel reminded me so much of where I grew up that I often felt my bias getting in the way. So take this review with a grain of salt, I suppose. Mohawk is full of things that drive me crazy back home: battered old kooks somehow run the town, everyone’s reputation is defined by what others believe rather than what anyone actually does or says, and the most important thing is who’s going to jail or who’s sleeping with who.
Russo nailed small town life, but the problem is that small town life isn’t interesting. They’re given a lovable, quaint reputation in our culture, but you’re all so wrong. Small towns are boring as shit.
I wish I had more to say, but this was such a forgettable story that I kind of just want to forget about it. I surely will. Hopefully things will pick up with his next installment, The Risk Pool.