Wednesday, August 12, 2009

That old Russo magic

A master novelist is back with That Old Cape Magic, a salty tale of marriages made and unmade in coastal New England

Summer's here and the time is right for another Richard Russo novel.

Over the course of the last decade or so, new Russo fiction has arrived in time for summe
r every few years, perfect vacation reading. Every one of his eight books, which date back to 1986, is like an excursion, and although the destinations are not always prepossessing -- his early novels had rundown upstate New York settings -- you're typically plopped down into small communities with a wonderfully witty (or entertainingly witless) cast of rogues, led by an amiable protagonist you can't help but like immensely as he makes his rounds while engaged in various kinds of shuttle diplomacy among parents, children, siblings, or other scoundrels. Russo novels typically feature hapless men and generally sharper, and thus exasperated, women. Sometimes a dowager figure looms over the proceedings, difficult but whip-smart. By the time they're all over, the main characters (boys in the early going, boyish men more recently) have figured out a thing or two, and so have you. The best book of Russo's early phase is Nobody's Fool (1994), which was made into an unjustly overlooked Robert Benton movie starring Paul Newman.

In recent years, the locus of Russo fiction has shifted to New England -- Maine, and espec
ially recently, Cape Cod -- and there's been a demographic shift as well toward more upscale characters. His 1997 send-up of academic life, Straight Man (this one set at a Pennsylvania university) was laugh-out loud hilarious. Empire Falls (2001), about a declining Maine mill town, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and was made into an HBO miniseries, also starring Newman in one of his last roles. Russo's last novel, Bridge of Sighs (2007), essentially fused a series of strands in his literary persona by telling a multi-generational story of three upstate New York friends, two of whom stay behind while the other becomes a successful painter in Venice.

Russo's latest offering, That Old Cape Magic, has familiar accents but gets reconfigured in
a new permutation. This is, in its entirely, a story about relatively affluent people, some of whom make their money in Hollywood (a motif that emerged in his recent 2003 short-story collection, The Whore's Child). It also features a set of college professors, returning us to the realm of Straight Man. Cape Cod and Maine resurface as settings, as they did in Empire Falls. Once again, the main theme is inter-generational tension, and a child's desire -- this time relatively late in life -- to finally come to terms with family legacies.

That Old Cape Magic is the most slender of Russo's novels, perhaps in more ways than one. And it rides a line of bitterness further than he has before, risking his readers' sympathies. I don't think it ranks with his best work. But even Russo on a bad day is always worth reading.

The story this time, bounded by a pair of weddings, concerns Jack Griffin, a former hack screenwriter turned college writing teacher. When the story opens, he's on his way to the Cape to attend the wedding of his daughter's best friend -- and to spread the ashes of his recently deceased father. The trip brings back two sets of memories. The first concerns his parents, a pair of professors who are frustrated by having to settle for a pair of jobs in the "Mid-fucking-west" (the only way they ever refer to it), but who seek a balm for their psychic wounds with the perfect Cape rental every summer, with the result that no summer vacation home is ever quite right. The second concerns the origins of Jack's own marriage 34 years earlier, specifically a "Great Truro Accord" informally forged on the Cape between Jack and his wife Joy that the two would eventually leave Los Angeles and settle down with a family (in Connecticut, as it turned out). Unsettled on both counts -- and by his impossible mother, who importunes him with aggravating cell phone calls -- the trip triggers a downward spiral.

The second half of the book is occurs a year later, when Jack's own daughter gets married in Maine. By this point, his marital life has been turned upside down, and he's lugging around two sets of ashes instead of one, somehow unable to spread either. He has to parry the hostility of various in-laws, and juggle relationships with characters with whom he met or saw at the last wedding. It's obvious to just about everyone what Jack needs to do -- including Jack himself -- but he's somehow paralyzed, belatedly realizing that the various choices he's made in his life that he's understood as a repudiation of his parents in fact has effectively replicated them. Will he finally come to terms with his past and truly move forward? (Take a wild guess.)

That Old Cape Magic is probably Russo's funniest book since Straight Man. Sometimes the humor is gentle (though not without an edge), like in this passage from early in the novel:

Joy's relationship to the English language was not without glitches. She was forever mixing metaphors, claiming that something was "a tough line to hoe." Row to hoe? Line to walk? Her sisters, Jane and June, were ever worse, and when corrected all three would narrow their eyes dangerously and identically. If they'd had a family motto, it would be You Know Perfectly Well What I Mean.

Other times the book gets downright zany, with pratfalls that include a defecating seagull, multiple fender benders, and well-deserved sluggings. One suspects Russo's increasing involvement in the film industry has given his storytelling an increasingly punchy and visual quality, though there's always been an unpredictably anarchic quality to it.

The portrayal of Jack's mother gives one pause. She's perfectly awful: caustic, self-centered, and ruthless in hunting down and exposing the vulnerabilities of others. If Russo didn't have a relatively balanced track record in his portrayal of women, I'd be tempted to call it downright misogynistic. Yet it's also clear as the novel unfolds that she serves a meta-narrative function about reliability of memory, a motif sustained via a story-within-a-story subplot. This stratagem raises another concern, however: that Russo's fiction, which for all its myriad variations nevertheless rests on an autobiographical foundation, may be retreating into a smaller compass in which a successful writer writes about writing.

Let me be clear about the origins of such a notion on my part: greed. I've been so happy with Russo's work that I hate to contemplate anything that may indicate his inability to keep delivering such satisfying work indefinitely. (That and the prospect of his mortality reminding me of my own.) So let me end on a note of gratitude. The fiction of Richard Russo has enriched my life at those times I'm most likely to savor it, i.e. my summer vacations. So I recommend him that you might enjoy similar pleasure -- and put a little extra money in his pocket. Russo reports in his acknowledgments that own daughters recently got married. If only in his wallet, that's gotta hurt.